Blame the marketers in the Aqua Teen fiasco

by Beacon Staff • February 7, 2007

If nothing else, it will go down as one of the strangest days in Boston. Around 38 suspicious devices were discovered around Beantown on Wednesday, Jan.,It was intended to be a creative and clever marketing campaign, but instead became a fiasco that may truly test the old adage that any publicity is good publicity.

If nothing else, it will go down as one of the strangest days in Boston. Around 38 suspicious devices were discovered around Beantown on Wednesday, Jan. 31. The overwhelming response to the discovery of these suspicious devices by law enforcement made it the story of the day. Part of I-93 and bridges over the Charles River were closed.

But then came the "gotcha" moment for authorities. Turner Broadcasting Systems announced these "potential bombs" were advertisements, part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for Cartoon Network. The boxes, featuring characters known as the Mooninites, promoted "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," a show on the network's late-night Adult Swim block.

Although it appeared as though law enforcement ended up with egg on their faces, it shouldn't be viewed that way. We should be comforted by the swift response to a potential threat.

This isn't the first time strange pop culture art has appeared in public places and elicited a strong reaction.

Last year, police in Ravenna, Ohio responded to 17 suspicious packages scattered throughout the small town. The packages turned out to be real-life "question blocks" from Nintendo's Super Mario Brothers games. The culprits were five teenage girls. Quite obviously, someone around town apparently hadn't gotten the joke.

The law is invariably swayed in favor of the authorities when things like this make people fear for their safety. Mayor Thomas M. Menino didn't joke around, even after the whole incident turned out to be about cartoon characters. The vigorous response should convince any tricksters to scra future plans to hanging Mario "question blocks" from the trees in Copley Square.

For Boston's collegiate population, it's much easier to find this funny. The next day, there seemed to be a general acceptance of the humor among Emerson students. After all, Wednesday was not without some seriously ridiculous moments, such as a press conference about 1970s haircuts by the suspects. And it was surreal to see one of the beloved show's cartoon characters, Ignignokt, giving you the finger on national television.

But acknowledging the humor hides the more troubling aspect of the story. The five girls in Ohio placed their boxes to bring a piece of pop culture to life. But the two gentlemen in Boston were paid for their work-to hang advertisements along public infrastructure. Funny or not, the marketing should never have gotten to this point.

And where did the money come from? A major American media company.

Guerilla marketing isn't always a recipe for disaster. It reaches demographics that conventional advertising sometimes does not. Unfortunately, this method is harder to recognize as advertising. In the case of the Mooninites, these devices looked less like advertisements and more like clever nods by crazed fans.

The City of Boston was completely justified in removing these free-loading advertisements from public and private property throughout the city. Authorities acted in a reasonable manner to something completely unfamiliar.

It's now a clich