Beyond The Buzz

We are cups, constantly and quietly being filled. The trick is, knowing how to tip ourselves over and let the beautiful stuff out.

– Ray Bradbury

Viral marketing or Crime?

Published February 1st, 2007 in Archive, Our Blog | Comments Off on Viral marketing or Crime?

You know what I’m talking about.  It’s all over the news today. A viral marketing stunt by the Cartoon Network gone bad. I’ve swung back and forth with my feelings on this. My immediate reaction was sympathy for the marketing/pr folks who are just trying to find a new way to get the word out. All of us in this business know how that feels. My secondary reaction was that they got what they wanted. They’re on the front page of virtually every major news source in the country.

 Interference Inc. is known for their guerilla tactics. It’s actually surprising that they haven’t gotten this kind of negative press before now. As shown in this article from 2001,, previous stunts have included plastering advertisements over all manner of public areas including park benches and train stops. It also, in a few cases, got as big as spray painting logos on sidewalks. Sam Ewen, the CEO of Interference Inc., makes a very strong point that their advertising ‘stunts’ are always positive messages. They try not to beat you over he head with it or garner negative reaction. After all negativity doesn’t usually create a fan of a product or company. But this specific ‘stunt’ involved placing these boxes all over the country and on these boxes, the characters were set to ‘flip off’ people as they were driving. With this sort of premise, I would have been surprised if the stunt hadn’t garnered some other sort of negative publicity regardless.

The question also must be asked why they believed this would create good buzz. If you’re not familiar with Aqua Teen Hunger Force (ATHF) then is having a cartoon character you don’t recognize flip you off as you’re driving the best way to draw you to a program? To the best of my knowledge, there was no corresponding billboard/print campaign that would explain who these characters were or where to find them. Even in the midst of yesterday’s chaos, had there been a corresponding campaign to let people know about the signs….but wait. Would that have still been a viral marketing stunt? Is it a good marketing stunt if you need to use traditional marketing in order to explain the stunt? That’s a good question.

Something else to consider is legality. From a professional standpoint, I’ve worked a variety of venues with promotions and there’s always permission involved somewhere. You can’t hang a banner in a parking lot without permission of the store or location. You can’t go to a public park without a permit. You can’t place advertising in windows without the permission of the owners. I’m not sure why no one thought to alert the city governments that this would be happening and see if a permit was necessary. After all, they weren’t just plastering bumper stickers. These were electronic devices placed simultaneously in key areas in cities around the country. I have no doubt that somewhere someone is saying “I told you this wasn’t a good idea.” But did anyone in the chain of events stop to think “Do we need to make sure this is okay first? Before we connect this electronic device to this bridge?” For a company this size that’s done larger campaigns, they should have known better.

To be fair to both sides, reports are stating that there were a large number of calls about the boxes in Boston all at once. No one’s fessing up as to whether that was part of the plan or if someone intended to get the group in trouble. According to police/911 reports, no one seemed overly concerned about the boxes when they called. No one felt they were bombs or that their lives were in danger (again, according to police reports) so did it garner the buzz they’d been seeking? Perhaps. The phone calls may have been part of the kick off plan. If that’s the case, both companies who signed off on this idea need to be aware that creating what appears to be a dangerous situation isn’t acceptable marketing.

 Also, it must be noted that the boxes were in place in major cities across the country for several weeks without any issues. No one else noticed electronic boxes stuck to bridges and roads in major cities around the US? For weeks? And now everyone’s in an uproar? No one noticed people putting the boxes up in the first place?

What it all comes down to is the reaction/response they got. Boston handled the complaints appropriately. And Interference Inc. got their client noticed.  But in this day and age electronics attached to major bridges isn’t a wise course of action.

Should the city be charging people under terrorist acts? Turner Network, owners of the Cartoon Network, immediately notified authorities of the boxes and their purpose. In fact, Turner called other cities across the country and informed them of the issues as well. They also offered unqualified cooperation.  Personally I think the authorities should fine the PR company and Cartoon Network and call it good. If it’s really necessary, then require them to do public service for the city for a year. But arresting individuals who were hired by a legitimate company to put up signs seems a little over the top. The companies need to know that they messed up. Beyond that, it seems like you’re shooting the messenger.