Mooninite CEO discusses guerrilla ads

by Beacon Staff • October 31, 2007

So when he's smashing giant dinosaur footprints into cars to promote the Discovery Channel, sending fake tourists to covertly advertise a new Sony camera-phone or releasing 34 Roman soldiers into the streets of New York for HBO, he means business.,Sam Ewen doesn't believe in being creative for the sake of being creative.

So when he's smashing giant dinosaur footprints into cars to promote the Discovery Channel, sending fake tourists to covertly advertise a new Sony camera-phone or releasing 34 Roman soldiers into the streets of New York for HBO, he means business.

That's what the president and co-founder of Interference Inc., the guerrilla marketing company that became notorious for its bird-flipping, bomb-scaring Aqua Teen Hunger Force campaign in Boston last January, told Emerson students last Thursday. His presentation was part of a series of topical marketing events cosponsored by Emerson's chapter of the American Marketing Association and the School of Communication.

Emil Lamprecht, a junior marketing communication major and president of Emerson's AMA chapter, invited Ewen to speak at Emerson last spring, shortly after the Mooninite incident. He said he had known about the company already and that the bomb scare motivated him to research it more.

"The more I looked into it, the more justified I felt inviting him to speak about what he does as a professional," Lamprecht said.

Ewen did not address the stunt, which eventually cost Turner Broadcasting $2 million in a settlement.

However, when asked after his address how far was too far in guerrilla marketing, he answered, "I used to say [to clients], 'Where your lawyers tell you not to go, that's where you start.'"

He quickly added, "I don't say that anymore."

Douglas Quintal, executive-in-residence for Emerson's marketing communication department, was more critical of the stunt. He did not attend Ewen's presentation because, he said, his perspectives on guerrilla marketing were opposed to Ewen's.

Quintal, who is also the faculty adviser of EmComm, said he was familiar with the event, however, and that he has worked on guerrilla campaigns in the past.

He said once you've gotten people talking, you need to move them to action. This was lacking in the Aqua Teen Hunger Force campaign, which he said was a waste of time and taxpayers' dollars.

"If you took the publicity out of the bomb scare, people would see a Lite-Brite flipping them off," he said. "The one-point-two percent of the public that actually watches Aqua Teen Hunger Force and would understand it probably already knew there was a movie. For the general public, there was no real correlation between the movie and the guerrilla marketing; no direction to further action."

The fallout of the misunderstood Mooninites included 60 hours of community service for the two artists who installed the 40 battery-powered light screens on bridges, highway ramps and storefronts in Boston.

Ewen declined to respond directly to Quintal's criticism, but defended his strategy in an e-mail to The Beacon.

"People are no longer willing to be told why they should use brands, they want to be actively involved in the brands that they consider," he said. "Starting a conversation, while not necessarily causing direct action, bring the brands to life for consumers."

Jesse Begenyi thought the campaign, which shut down major roadways and subway lines and had bomb squads rushing to Boston bridges, was funny once she learned it was a joke. She said Ewen and his company should have been forgiven because she believes they didn't intend any harm.

"If it were an anti-war protest group, it would be different," she said.

The sophomore marketing communication major, understands, though, why a the city was upset. "I have a friend who was working at the State House then," she said. "She had to go to the bridge and tell everyone that it wasn't a bomb and to just calm down and go home. She got really sick of it."

Ewen told the crowd of about 70 students that his is the business of providing clients with media which he says they can't just readily go out and buy.

He asks himself, "What can I do that will entertain people, educate them and give them something to talk about?"

The answer: guerrilla marketing; using unconventional, experiential techniques to get people talking about a product.

He believes that commercials and product placement can still be effective but that people in today's media-centric society need more. His method of choice is to create positive associations between products he's selling and experiences that customers want to be a part of.

To provide clients with those experiences, Ewen culls inspiration and strategies from what's popular in music, art and other media.

In his presentation, he discouraged the notion that every idea has to be brand new to be effective. He believes that there is nothing wrong with taking old ideas and adapting them if they will be effective for a client.

"There's this idea that you have to think outside of the box," he said. "My homework for you is to never say that again."

Quintal agreed that thinking critically for its own sake is counterproductive.

"You may think you've thought up new concepts but there's a reason why they haven't been touched," he said.

Quintal said a formal education was essential to help aspiring marketers avoid making mistakes like the bungled Mooninite campaign.

"Guerrilla marketing gives a resource to anyone with a platform and something to say," he said. "But you've got to know your consumer and the environmental surroundings you're operating in."