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Guerrilla Marketing Arena Soiled By 'Aqua Teen' Fiasco

February 05, 2007

A Brandweek Staff Report

BOSTON -- Marketers will likely steer clear of guerrilla tactics until the controversy around the Aqua Teen Hunger Force stunt-turned-bomb-scare in Boston dies down, execs said last week. And that will no doubt be followed by a reassessment of the potential price of what used to be known as a low-cost method to generate buzz.

The blunder made for huge headlines, apologies and headaches. Though some blamed Boston police for overreacting to the placement of light boxes bearing images of the Mooninite character from the Cartoon Network show, others, like Boston Globe columnist Brian McCrory, called for the arrest of Turner Broadcasting's marketing chief for spooking the city.

Considering the net's audience, some didn't find the promotion in poor taste. "For the movie and the show . . . it's completely on-brand for Aqua Teen," said Lucian James, president of Agenda, a San Francisco agency. "But the culture of guerrilla marketing could be affected. It will put the onus on the guerrilla marketers. We'll be asked to be responsible for ideas potentially going wrong."

James was among execs who expressed confidence that the fuss would soon go away. "It's a major incident but it's not as big as Janet Jackson's boobs," he said.

Marketers like guerrilla tactics because they match adventurous ideas with few resources. Brandweek has awarded guerrilla marketing props for nearly a decade. Interference Inc. founder Sam Ewen was one of the magazine's judges in 2006. (For a complete look at Brandweek's take on Guerrilla Marketing from our Nov. 20, 2006 issue, click HERE)

But the New York agency's stunt could turn out to be the most expensive guerrilla marketing effort ever. On top of the original budget, Turner has offered to pay more than $1 million for deploying emergency workers. Then there are legal bills to defend the two workers hired by Interference and charged with placing the light boxes near bridges and highways in the first place, among others. Boston mayor Tom Menino has promised to prosecute. And it's still unclear how much Turner will spend on damage control.

Of those new factors, Adam Salacuse, CEO of marketing firm AltTerrain in Boston, said, "I think in the next six months it's going to hurt the industry as a whole." After that, business would return to normal. "Things always go in cycles," he said.

One marketer took a measured view: "It's going to be interesting to see how this turns out," said David Knox, P&G Beauty Teen external relations manager. "It makes me think of the P.T. Barnum quote about publicity [that no pr is bad]. I would never have heard about an Adult Swim [campaign] in Boston [otherwise]. But is that gonna make one of my brands go out and do it? I don't know about that."

Turner rep Shirley Powell said the company was too busy responding to the bomb scare to consider what impact the incident would have on its future marketing or on whether anyone would be fired: "There is no one at Turner taking any comfort in this exposure."

Nevertheless, a firing was widely expected at press time. "I have no doubt someone at Cartoon Network will lose their job over this one," said Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade Marketing Group, New York.

Interference posted an apology on its Web site but Ewen declined comment.

The events also highlight the issue of what clients know—or don't—about how agencies carry out wild-posting stunts. For years, so-called street teams have pasted ads on private property or government buildings. That often requires breaking the law, an issue that clients have largely ignored (until last week) as the consequences were trivial.

One guerrilla agency exec told Brandweek that a client had asked him to deliberately break the law to get publicity. The client's attitude? "We want legal difficulty . . . We don't care." His agency has since steered clients clear of trouble, he said.

"They know they're doing it illegally, there's no question," said Vanessa Gruen, a rep at the New York Municipal Art Society, which monitors illegal outdoor ads. "They get fined sometimes and they just consider that part of the cost of doing business."

Still, such envelope-pushing tactics are increasingly courting a consumer backlash: A 2004 poll by Yankelovich Partners found that 61% of consumers felt the amount of marketing and advertising was out of control; 45% felt the amount of ads and marketing detracted from everyday life.

--Constantine von Hoffman, Becky Ebenkamp and Jim Edwards


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