No doubt many of you are already well aware of the ad-campaign-turned-terrorist-scare that rocked us in the city of Boston on January 30.  I’m a little behind the 8-ball in writing up my thoughts about it.  But since it is still coming up — both in our team conversations here, and out in the world at large — I thought it would be worth talking about, even a few weeks after the fact.

The redux of what happened:

In an attempt to promote its Cartoon Network show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," Turner Broadcasting positioned LED displays of one of the show’s characters around significant city structures, including bridges and i-93, Boston’s central artery. (See images of the devices here).

The question we’ve been debating internally, is: Was this good marketing?

I respond with a big, fat, "no way."  Because I, like the city of Boston took this prank very seriously.  I *want* the city to react the way it did to any suspicious activity.  I *want* to know that my city is willing to take action to protect its citizens from danger.  Frankly, I think marketers who disregard the sensitivities of a market or target audience are foolish.

Now, the counter point to this is that the cult audience of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" was not the least bit offended by this. And may even be delighting in all the scuttlebutt.  Or perhaps that the damages Turner pays Boston will actually be cheap for all the press they have gotten from the incident.

Regardless, I think a few conclusions can be drawn from this prank:

  • Boston (and other city and state governments) should watch social media. Similar campaigns ran in other metro areas to know incident.  If Boston had tuned into the online buzz, it would have known in advance that the devices were harmless.
  • Heck, Boston should be using the Web overall.  A few simple image searches would have identified the nature of the device when the first one was found, eliminating need for escalation.
  • Marketers have an incentive to be on the edge of ethical.  Today’s media-jammed environment forces marketers (and their agency partners) to develop new ways to secure user attention, customize messages and compete with other campaigns.  This means some "innovations" may be risky, shocking, or downright unethical in an attempt to get ad-desensitized consumers to notice.
  • Now Turner has these two guys as its spokespeople.  Yikes!