What We Can Learn From the 'Aqua Teen Hunger Force' Fiasco

The Growing Cultural Divide

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"WHEN NON-TRADITIONAL MARKETING GOES TERRIBLY WRONG." I was greeted by this email headline in my in-box Thursday before last when I arrived at work. Unless you've been living on the moon this past week, you know I'm talking about the Boston terror panic caused by a Turner Broadcasting promotion.

I'm sure, like the Julie Roehm saga, we've all read enough on the topic so I'm writing this entry not to judge which side may be right or wrong. I'm also not here to talk about what this means for guerilla-marketing tactics. Or that we, as an
Noelle Weaver Noelle Weaver
industry must ban together. Rather, I wanted to share my thoughts on the evolution of this story and, as I commented to my friends over brunch on Sunday, how this is a very vivid illustration of the growing cultural and (some would argue) generational divide that is developing and, not consequently, leading to heated debates and anger between groups.

Case in point? Take this editorial I came across from Boston Herald columnist Howie Carr.

"Some deep thinkers have been saying that this is a generational thing—Borat's supporters on the youthful side, and the cops, polls and media a bunch of wrinkly Baby Boomers.

I agree, there is a divide here. But it's not between generations; it's between people who smoke pot every day and those who don't. Those who have jobs and those who don't. Those who go to the HempFest on the Common every September, and those who don't. Those who live at home with their parents at age 30, and those who don't."

At the same time a student at Ithaca had this to say, "I feel out of touch with the culture of fear that would allow something like this to get so far out of hand."

It comes as no surprise that there's a growing rift between mainstream media and bloggers. During the course of this event the mainstream media was quick to arrive at the scene to report the event and then draw on comments from the police, city council members and other political officials.
Bloggers, on the other hand, were quick to scour the internet for news and piece together who this was for, why it was done and what other cities were involved in the campaign (and had not had issue with the campaign). For them, it was a different story than the one the mainstream media chose to write. Nowhere was this more pointedly illustrated than on Boing Boing, which posted a photo of Ed Atkins displaying a sign that said "Dear U.S. media outlets, PLEASE STOP trying to report on things you don't understand. The bloggers will cover the ATHF story from here on out. Thanks."

Reading through everything, it became clear that we didn't know what to make of the LED displays. For some, they were copy cat creations of well-known street artists. For some they were not unlike the Lite Brites we played with as children. For others it was easy to compare the lights to other stunts that went amuck in the past, including the Mission:Impossible bomb scare that occurred in L.A. last April. And still for others, not familiar with the "ATHF" show, the type of humor its viewing audience is akin to, or the popularity of street art, the LED displays were an unseen and unknown threat from a very angry person.

It was also a great study in the use of persuasive language. Boston authorities were quick to call the event "a terrorist hoax"' while others called it a "prank." In our own industry we struggled with what to call this. It was referred to as a "viral campaign" by some. PRWeek referred to it as a "publicity stunt." BrandWeek called it a "marketing stunt." The Hollywood Reporter referred to them as "ad lights." Bruce Schneir, a security expert and writer on contemporary security issues summed up the incident as a "'Non-Terrorist' Embarrassment in Boston."

Meanwhile, a New York Magazine cover story subhead declares: "Understanding the Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock and Roll"

While the article is really speaking to teens' use of online media and sense of privacy, I couldn't help but think how that headline spoke to so much more than just technology.

We're at a time where there's a lot of unexplored, untested and innovating new things happening in our world. It's human nature to be suspicious and fearful of things we don't understand. It's also human nature to be frustrated with a system that doesn't allow for change.

If there was any one thing that I took away from this event is was, quite simply, that there are two sides to the issue -- neither of which understands the other. And that is a very important lesson for us marketers to recognize.
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