What started out as a small-budget guerilla street promotion for cult TV show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" on Cartoon Network, some light boxes featuring the show's Mooninite characters surreptitiously dotted around Boston, quickly descended into a full-scale emergency as they were taken for explosive devices. Then, almost as swiftly -- thanks to cable news, newspaper websites and an army of bloggers -- the whole incident was transformed into a national debate on whether this was marketing run amok or whether the authorities might have been able to defuse it with the help of a 15-year-old or a Google search rather than a bomb squad.
Upstaged Super Bowl ad hype
Even with the $1 million in reparations that Turner may have to pay the city for the blind panic it caused last Thursday, it could still consider itself in the black in ROI terms, given it dominated the media for 48 hours -- even upstaging hype for the world's biggest ad showcase, the Super Bowl.
But all publicity is not good publicity, a Turner spokeswoman said. The company was damned by many, notably Boston authorities, who missed no opportunity to express their disgust, and, of course, Fox News, which seemed to relish the misstep.
Marketing experts and associations said much of the condemnation was deserved but also pointed out that Turner was unlucky the reaction spiraled so rapidly. Turner should have cleared the campaign with authorities, some said, while others noted that putting a small black box in a public place should have raised alarms at the agency or marketer -- even if it was a small black box displaying a Lite Brite-like cartoon character.
Guerilla vs. stealth tactics
Experts also said there is no room for deceptive or dishonest tactics in today's world. "There's a difference between guerilla and stealth," said Paul Rand, communications director, Word of Mouth Marketing Association. "We ... have to make sure we all as an industry stay self-correcting. That doesn't mean you can't do really good, thoughtful guerilla campaigns. You just have to do it honestly."
Whether the snafu boosts "Aqua Teen's" ratings and its forthcoming movie remains to be seen, but awareness among the show's target demographic of 18- to 34-year-old males must have risen considerably in the wake of the incident. It will be interesting to see whether the characters are lifted from cult status into the mainstream. "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" is shown during the Adult Swim lineup, which last year drew an average of 369,000 viewers 18 to 34, most of them (234,000) men under 25. The cost of Mooninites on eBay last week rose from around $250 to around $4,000; none seemed to be on sale at press time.
Jason Maltby, president-national broadcast at MindShare, described the media fallout as a "double-edged sword" for Turner from a publicity standpoint but said the coverage should resonate at least with core fans. "Adult Swim does a very good job of reaching young males with a certain taste for certain types of comedy," he said. "This will not have any negative impact on business. If it has any positive impact, it will probably be small, in terms of maybe getting people to tune in and find out what 'Aqua Teen' is all about."
The widely viewed performance of Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, the campaign's executors -- in which they barely tried to contain their knowing smirks and spent three minutes riffing on the history of the dreadlock -- spoke volumes about the audience for this kind of marketing. The same college kids who watch Adult Swim are the ones advertisers asked to create their consumer-generated campaigns and are hoping to receive comments from on their Super Bowl spots on YouTube. Cable-news outlets, in fact, noticed that the earliest e-mails coming into their websites were from young men who were first to identify the Mooninite character and note the unlikelihood that this was a terrorist act.
Meanwhile, Super Bowl marketers were getting little press at all. "It's a very interesting question if advertisers start to connect dots on why they didn't get a lot of buzz," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer, Nielsen BuzzMetrics. "The bigger cost is to marketers who really put a premium on consolidated attention coming into the biggest marketing event of the year. I've heard people say, 'Oh my gosh, I'm sure [Turner's] secretly happy, they've built the brand,' but it definitely raises some tougher questions. "
He added: "There's some collateral damage emerging from some of these attention-at-all-costs initiatives. ... That's where the marketing community might have to take a step back and say, 'OK, are we kind of hurting our own to get ahead?'"