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Boston stunt creates PR buzz saw instead of buzz

Story Highlights

• Electronic signs promoted "Aqua Teen Hunger Force"
• 38 blinking signs found around Boston
• Signs posted in nine other cities
By David E. Williams
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(CNN) -- People are certainly talking about "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" after a publicity stunt that went spectacularly wrong, but marketing experts say paralyzing a city and landing two guys in court isn't the best way to build a brand.

Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens allegedly placed electronic boards with a light-up cartoon character around Boston, Massachusetts, as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign.

But this stunt backfired, sparking a bomb scare Wednesday that led authorities to close down the Boston University and Longfellow bridges, and block maritime traffic from the Charles River into Boston Harbor. (Watch the campaign that put bomb squad on edge)

Berdovsky and Stevens pleaded not guilty last week to placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct.

Marketing experts say many companies are turning to unconventional marketing techniques to grab people's attention and cut through the clutter of traditional television, radio and billboard advertising.

"Here's the risk when you want word of mouth, not all buzz is good buzz," said CEO Mark Hughes. "Some negative buzz can work to your advantage, but stuff like this does not."

The devices, which feature a character called a Mooninite, were put up two or three weeks ago in Boston and nine other cities, according to Turner Broadcasting System Inc. spokeswoman Shirley Powell. Forty devices were placed in each city, she said.

Turner is the parent company of Cartoon Network, which runs the show. Turner also is the parent of CNN. The company apologized for the scare. (Full story)

"On the one hand, you could define it as a success, but I think from a professional marketer's and a buzz marketer's perspective it's probably something that crossed the line and just went too far," Hughes said.

Hughes is probably best known for convincing a tiny town to change its name to, Oregon.

He said this may not be the biggest marketing blunder he's ever seen, but "it's in the top three." (Interactive: Misadventures in marketingexternal link)

"I think that in any kind of marketing that's never been done before you always ask for forgiveness versus permission. However, you've got to know when the line's been crossed and you have to know when you're going too far," he said.

Hughes said he scrapped a marketing plan for his book after the 2005 London subway bombings.

"We were going to put boulders all over Manhattan on the sidewalks and the boulders would have a Web site address on it -- very kind of mysterious," he said. "We decided immediately after the London bombings not to do it because people would naturally think, 'Gosh is this a bomb or is this something harmful?' "

Karl Carter of Atlanta, Georgia-based Guerrilla Tactics Media said fans of the show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" would recognize the character and think it was funny, but other people who saw the signs wouldn't get the joke.

"This is probably better set up for nightclubs and other sorts of scenarios where the people that are receiving the message, one, would know what it's about, but also two, wouldn't be frightened," he said. "You know, if you put these in certain environments, like public spaces in this post-9/11 sensitivity, then of course you're going to wind up in trouble."

Artists alarmed

New York artist Steve Lambert said it's a mistake for advertisers to try to co-opt individual expression.

"They can never really get it right," he said.

Lambert is part of a group called Graffiti Research Labs, which shows artists and protesters how to use electronics to spread their message.

"Right now you have to pay thousands of dollars to participate in public space and even advertisers are getting cheap about it," he said. "I mean this campaign was supposed to be effective and underground and cost-effective because it uses these methods instead of buying actual space or buying a legal billboard."

One of the lab's projects, called LED Throwies, uses tape, a magnet, a watch battery and an LED bulb to make a tiny light that will stick to metal surfaces. The group has used dozens of the lights to write messages and draw designs.

Lambert said the Throwies are cheap, easy enough for anyone to make and obviously harmless. But he said they're time-consuming to make, which makes them hard to mass produce.

"What this marketing company has done is made a production circuit board that had to be manufactured, added resistors, a photo cell, large batteries, wiring, made it a lot more complicated because it needed to be efficient so they could produce a lot of them," he said. "And that's ultimately what got them the attention. That's what the person noticed was large batteries, wires, circuitry."

Make Magazine editor Phillip Torrone said the advertisers should have used better judgment, but called the Mooninite board a "neat electronic project."

The magazine and its Web site feature quirky do-it-yourself projects and sell components for homemade MP3 players, iPod chargers that fit in a mint tin and other electronic projects.

An Altoid tin crammed full of batteries, wires and circuit boards might seem suspicious, but Torrone said his readers haven't had too many problems.

"Generally, your individual electronic enthusiast does not assault a city with a campaign," he said. "So that's why you don't see a lot of makers getting in trouble with Homeland Security or whatever, but these kind of things where an advertiser comes in and takes an electronic project like this and puts it up all over the city, that causes problems."

One of the "Mooninite" light boards that caused the scare is displayed at a news conference.


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