In the wake of the Boston brouhaha over a Turner Broadcasting marketing campaign, industry experts are wondering how far is too far
To Richard Notarianni, executive creative director of media at Euro RSCG Worldwide, the scene in Boston on Feb. 1 had eerie, historic overtones of one October day in 1938, when a radio broadcast of Orson Welles' War of the Worlds adaptation had listeners all over the country believing a militant fleet of Martians had landed in New Jersey. This time, however, the hoaxer was a major media conglomerate, the invaders were boxes of light-emitting-diode lights crudely resembling cartoon Moon-men, and the medium was guerrilla marketing.
As you may have heard by now, the campaign was for Turner Broadcasting System, the multibillion-dollar offspring of Ted Turner and a subsidiary of Time Warner (TWX). For three weeks in January, Turner teamed up with New York guerrilla agency Interference Inc. to deploy 400 LED light displays in 10 cities: Boston, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Austin, Tex. The signs, which lacked any text or call to action, showed an alien character called a "Mooninite" from the cartoon series and upcoming movie Aqua Teen Hunger Force, displaying his middle finger. It was all part of a plan to promote its eccentric, nighttime, college-crowd brand of programming Adult Swim.
While other cities took little notice, some residents of Boston mistook the batteries and wires protruding from the devices for explosives and notified authorities. The city quickly shut down major transportation corridors and spent close to $500,000 deploying police and bomb-sniffing dogs. Turner Broadcasting took responsibility for the stunt, issuing an apology and paying $1 million to the city and $1 million in "good will" funds towards homeland security.
What Price Success?
In the days since then, at least 1,000 print and online news stories have covered the event. Blogs have buzzed continuously about what the news means for the cartoon, the network, the advertising industry, even for America's belabored War on Terror. The two men responsible for installing the devices appeared at a press conference, only to refuse to discuss the incident. T-shirts emblazoned with the cartoon character were instantly available for sale online. According to data from Nielsen Media Research, the average number of American households who viewed Aqua Teen Hunger Force rose 5%, to 1,082,500, during the week of Jan. 29 to Feb. 4, from 1,030,500 during the week of Jan. 22 to Jan. 28, and traffic to Cartoon Network's Web site spiked 105.2%, to 790,000, on Feb. 1, from 385,000 one week before.
For considerably less than the cost of a 30-second TV spot on the Super Bowl, Turner certainly got the word out about its obscure cartoon. So the campaign was a success, right? Not so fast. Turner's spokesperson maintains, "I don't think anybody [in Turner] is looking at the buzz we've had from this as a success," while industry insiders grumble that the campaign was a misuse of guerrilla tactics that misjudged the times and will only make things more difficult for others in the future.
The term guerrilla first entered the advertising lexicon in 1984, when industry veteran Jay Conrad Levinson penned a book with the title Guerrilla Marketing (Houghton Mifflin). Then, Levinson defined the medium as an investment of time, energy, and imagination rather than money, ideal for prudent entrepreneurs who ran small businesses. In recent years, however, guerrilla initiatives have been pursued by large corporations looking to stand out from the clutter and noise of traditional media (see BusinessWeek.com, 8/4/06, "Advertising: When Guerrilla Goes Bourgeois"). Live performance stunts, coded messages, multisensory ads, and other unconventional campaigns have become an effective means to reach into the private worlds of consumers and engage them in a memorable experience with brands.
An Insider Wink
To Levinson, despite the media spotlight on Turner as a result of the campaign, the events were a "misuse of" and "smear across" the discipline, with the advertiser totally overlooking the perpetual jumpiness of authorities in major cities across the U.S.. "This would have been a really cool campaign in a pre-9/11 world," he says. Certainly, the events have forged a debate over the role of ethics in such campaigns. What is the line between obtrusive and intrusive, between subtle and subversive, between newsworthy and sensational? A dialogue once reserved for brainstorming sessions in Madison Avenue offices has made its way into dinner-table discussion in homes across America.
In its own view, Turner was simply playing buddy-buddy to Adult Swim's core audience of males aged 18 to 24. "Because there was no call to action, we thought [the campaign] would only engage our core audience. To anybody else, we anticipated it would be ignored," says Shirley Powell, senior vice-president of communications for Turner Broadcasting. "It was supposed to be an insider wink to our fans."
That's a common guerrilla technique, says Peter Stabler, director of communications strategy for San Francisco-based Goodby, Silverstein & Partners. "In Turner's recognition of their community, the hope is they will galvanize fans to speak about it. After one person proclaims, 'I know what that thing on the bridge is!' there's the hope that it will start feeding itself," Stabler says.
But in Boston, it appears, Adult Swim insiders failed to educate those around them to what was really going on. And when that chain of command broke down, Turner's lack of transparency and failure to notify the authorities ahead of time came back to bite the company.
Such precautions are identified in the Ethics Code published by the Word of Mouth Marketing Assn., a three-year-old Chicago trade organization representing more than 250 advertising agencies worldwide. "Within the code is honesty of relationship, honesty of opinion, and honesty of identity. This campaign danced around the edges of all those," says Paul Rand, director of communications for WOMMA and partner of public-relations agency Ketchum.
Rand notes that this wasn't the first time Interference Inc. eschewed advertiser transparency. In 2002, Sony Ericsson worked with Interference on a campaign where actors demonstrated the photo capabilities of its new T68i mobile phone in real-life settings. Some, dressed as tourists, idled near landmarks like the Empire State Building and handed the phone to passersby to take a souvenir picture. Others, attractive women, sat at bars and tried to spark conversation about their "recent purchase." A wave of negative backlash from the press and industry insiders denounced the campaign for its subversive tactics and labeled it "human spam."
Real World Rules
Rand doesn't believe the backlash against Interference's campaign in Boston will stop guerrilla marketers in their tracks, but he hopes it will urge them to exercise greater caution. "What this does do is continue to underline for marketers the need to be transparent and credible in their communications," he says. "A lot of lawyers and legal regulatory people within marketing organizations will step up and be very aggressive about this," agrees Euro's Notarianni. "Internally, there will be a lot of discussion about this, but you probably won't see too many campaigns being canceled."
But, says Kevin Roddy, executive director of Bartle Bogle Hegarty in New York, it's a timely reminder to advertisers to remember the real world in which all advertising must play out. "Some people in this business will go, 'Boy, I'm not getting noticed. Instead of making the piece of work better, I'm going to make it more obnoxious,'" he says. "Then we wonder why we can't get a client's trust." It's safe to speculate that, for the time being at least, Turner will be keeping the guerrilla on ice.