It’s been a good year around the world for the outdoor media market. Unlike Britain – where we are still flogging campaigns that win awards rather than consumer cut through – publicity connoisseurs have feasted on a new generation of living outdoor ad sites, retail theatre and publicity stunts that capture front pages. This hunger for wild and wacky stunts to engage the ad weary punter, has never been so vital.
Last week, the world focused its attention on a stunt that went bad. Two buzz marketeers – or sucker artists – Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28 were commissioned by comms shop, to create an action. They hooked up several circuit boards featuring an animated character to promote a late-night show on Turner Broadcasting’s System’s Cartoon Network. The blinking electronic signs promoting the TV show Aqua Teen Hunger Force were erected on bridges and other high-profile spots across the city of Boston on Wednesday. Unfortunately, the local fuzz mistook the boards for suspected explosive devices and closed off roads, suspended rail services and even closed off a stretch of the city’s main river, before removing them with the company’s help. Stevens and Berdovsky face up to five years in prison. The small devices, the size of a laptop computer caused a panic, leading to the shutdown of area bridges and highways, as well as two arrests and the destruction of at least one device by bomb squads.
The Mayor of Boston summed up the paranoia that the stunt inflamed: “It is outrageous, in a post 9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme.”
After the men had their collars felt and were held on $2,500 each cash bond, they pleaded not guilty to placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct. The stunt went awry simply because it stirred up fears of terrorism in a nation fuelled post 9 /11 that a strike is imminent. The TV series 24 has a lot to answer for!
Turner was quick off the mark to try and manage the media fiasco, controlling the fervour with statements in response. The company said in a released statement that “the packages in question are magnetic lights that pose no danger. We regret that they were mistakenly thought to pose any danger.” Phil Kent, Turner’s chairman, added that the company appreciates “the gravity of this situation and, like any responsible company would, are putting all necessary resources toward understanding the facts surrounding it as quickly as possible.”
I suspect higher up the food chain, someone was panicking that they might be sued or at least would have to reimburse the cities and states affected. Channel 4 should take a lesson from Turner’s corporate comms department who managed the blaze before it took hold.
Turner Broadcasting and Interference this week agreed to pay $2 million to the city and to homeland security.
Let’s face it, the art of a great publicity stunt must amuse as well as outrage. Sure, the news hurricane surrounding the Turner wheeze was a bonanza in terms of free press for the show’s planned broadcast , but that’s if you accept the maxim that no publicity is bad publicity. Alas, 21st century publicity scams are not that straightforward in the sophisticated era of media placement. All too often, the ad and marketing suits fail to incorporate the killer media hook at the heart of the story. A bright idea is not always an idea that will engage the fourth estate. The inexperienced creator sometimes doesn’t calculate the fall out when bewitched by a big idea that he enthusiastically thinks will make his client drool.
Despite the efforts of bloggers to out the stunt, many knew what was about to be instigated; the stunt did its job. Videos of the signs were being placed on YouTube, and one sign that somebody took from South Boston was up for auction on eBay. The net chatter was deafening before it went sour. But the core failure was that the idea didn’t communicate in the traditional media forum which resulted in the chaos. An idea that is good for the street and net is sometimes something that sours in the traditional market.
On one side, there is a team of hip marketers and their target audience, who may be isolated from the mainstream or simply not old enough to understand the impact of the ad placement. On the other side, you have a culture that has been hardened by marketing, allied with post-9/11 fever. The two differing career experiences are exposing a narrow opening through which the sides see and respect each other. Clearly there is a generation gap widening and the result might see great creativity stifled. There is a hope that the blend of youth and experience can deliver 360 stunts that amuse and excite rather than silo creativity that is powered by arrogance and closed ears to the grey hairs in the room