Boston Guerrilla Marketers Went 'Over the Line,' Author Says

By Randy Hall | July 7, 2008 | 8:23 PM EDT

( - The terror scare caused by the discovery of mysterious electronic devices in and around Boston on Wednesday was the result of "guerrilla marketing gone wrong," because the people involved in the publicity campaign never considered post-9/11 security issues, according to analysts in advertising and national security.

"Anytime you create mass panic in a city and you deploy the city's total security force, to me, you've gone over the line," Al Lautenslager, author of the book "Guerrilla Marketing in 30 Days," told Cybercast News Service on Thursday, after nine battery-powered devices caused panic in the Boston area.

While noting that guerrilla marketing uses "creative and unconventional methods to promote products, services, companies and people," Lautenslager stressed that "it is never designed to be offensive, frightful or unethical."

The first report regarding the small devices came in Wednesday morning, when an object with circuit boards, blinking lights and wires was found at a subway and bus station underneath Interstate 93. As a result, police shut down the station and highway for several hours.

About 1 p.m., four calls came in regarding similar "packages" found on city bridges and street corners, causing the authorities to disrupt traffic and subway service temporarily in those areas. By late afternoon, nine devices had been found and either disabled or destroyed.

Police officials determined that the lights on the devices had been assembled to resemble a character on the animated series "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," which is aired at night on the Cartoon Network and is the subject of an upcoming feature film.

"It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme," said Mayor Tom Menino. "I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred," which have been estimated by city officials to reach $750,000.

Turner Broadcasting, the parent company of the cable TV channel, issued a statement explaining that the devices posed no danger and were "part of an outdoor marketing campaign" that had been in place for two to three weeks in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Austin, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

The company added that it was "in contact with local and federal enforcement on the exact locations of the billboards. We regret that they mistakenly thought to pose any danger."

As Cybercast News Service previously reported, Wednesday's incident isn't the first time an unconventional advertising campaign has fallen foul of terrorism fears.

In May of 2005, Paramount Pictures and the Los Angeles Times tried to promote the "Mission Impossible III" film by concealing digital audio players in 4,500 randomly selected newspaper boxes in the area. When newspaper buyers opened the racks, the red plastic boxes played the movie's theme song.

However, one newspaper buyer at a Veterans Affairs Administration facility in Los Angeles saw the device, thought it was a bomb and called authorities, who evacuated as many as 300 people, including some 50 patients.

Lautenslager said such scares "don't have to happen." He said he expects Turner Broadcasting would reimburse the city for costs related to Wednesday's incident - but the price was "cheap PR" for the series.

Network executives "knew this going in, is my guess," he said. "They sat down and said, 'OK, we may have to pay some fines, we may get some people arrested.' But I don't think they intended to create mass panic."

'Please watch our show'

Christopher Brown, director of research and education for the nonprofit American Security Council, told Cybercast News Service on Thursday Turner Broadcasting "probably just thought it was a cute way to promote their television show with electronic flashing lights."

The people behind the publicity campaign "never considered the potential national security or security issues because they don't work in that world," he said.

"I don't believe the individuals involved in this at the Cartoon Network or Turner Broadcasting were trying to make any kind of statement, other than 'please watch our show.'"

Nevertheless, the scare had both positive and negative consequences, Brown said. "There's a silver lining in that the Boston police and local authorities reacted very rapidly to a developing situation and were able to maintain some control of it.

"However, it might inspire individuals regarding how easy it is to plant little electronic devices all around a major American city," he added. "If these things had been bombs and rigged to go off, a lot of people could have been hurt very quickly, and it would have spread panic through the entire U.S."

Larry Johnson, a former CIA officer who now heads the Business Exposure Reduction Group, not only dismissed the publicity campaign as "absolutely absurd," he also criticized the media for its "gross overreaction" to the situation.

"The deterioration that has taken place over the last five years is shocking."

Journalists "can't even get their own reporting right," Johnson told Cybercast News Service on Thursday.

"They say that 'the bomb squad blew up the box.' What they actually use is a water cannon, which shoots a stream of water to separate what looks like a detonator from the possible explosive."

Also on Thursday, devices from the campaign were located and removed in several other cities while two men who were hired to install the items in Boston were arraigned on charges of placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct.

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