Bomb Scare Tactics in War for Our Attention

    by Mark Glaser
    February 2, 2007

    i-d06d718c3de0e1b1145bce5561817d21-Aqua Teen Hunger Force.JPG
    For every tactic the world of marketing and advertising dreams up, we have a counter-technology that will block their attempts to reach us. We zap TV ads with the aid of digital video recorders such as TiVo. We subscribe to satellite radio or listen to podcasts to skip radio commercials. Our web browsers have pop-up ad blockers to put those annoying, blinking ads to rest.

    We might win a battle here and there, but the marketers are out to win the war. They’ve come up with web technology to get around the pop-up blockers. They sponsor our favorite podcasts, and then use product placements in TV shows and movies. And we all know how good they are at reaching us with in every conceivable place, from messages imprinted on the sand at beaches to video ads that run in elevators and malls.

    So while we can argue about the stupidity or brilliance — or both — of the recent guerrilla marketing campaign by Turner Broadcasting for the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” animated movie, we know it’s another desperate tactic by marketers in the battle for our attention. In this case, Turner planted little blinky signs of a crude alien making a crude gesture with its middle finger. In Boston, city officials believed the blinky signs might be bombs and shut down traffic, creating chaos. Two guys who placed the blinky signs around town were arrested, and the CEO of Turner apologized profusely.


    I remember when I first watched the movie, “Brazil,” and wondered about its dark vision of a world where bomb blasts go off in restaurants and people barely pay attention. Now I wonder if marketers will have to set off bombs to get our attention. We are so busy and so frazzled, with a virtual bombardment of media from all directions — computer, iPod, smart phone, instant messaging, email, TV, radio, magazines, newspapers and on and on. What will make us take notice of your ad message?

    Google (and Overture before that) got this right by serving simple, relevant text ads up with our search results — giving us the ads we actually want. That’s one way to get our attention and make us feel good about ads. There’s also the recent trend toward user-generated ads, where advertisers let the audience create the ads. At least four ads for this Sunday’s Super Bowl will be created by average folks who won contests, according to the Washington Post, including a Doritos ad that cost $12.79 to make. That’s a real feel-good story, except for the ad agencies that lost out on making the ad.

    The Turner campaign can easily be faulted for going a bit too far, for not advising the authorities in Boston, for possibly putting two guys (or more) in jail. But time will tell if this was a battle won or lost by the guerrilla forces. Many stories about the bomb scare mention that older folks were upset by the blinky devices, which had batteries and wires attached. But younger folks, it seems, were much more hip to the cartoon and knew it was a viral marketing campaign. And maybe the marketers, in this way, reached their intended audience and only insulted the generation of folks who had no chance of seeing the movie anyway.


    The authorities may well have overreacted to the blinky signs, but it was an overreaction that brought massive press mentions of the movie and cartoon, and that’s a victory for any marketer who doesn’t want to bomb.

    What do you think? Did the Turner marketers go too far with this campaign or did the authorities overreact? Where do you draw the line with guerilla marketing and when do you think it works against the product? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

    [Photo by Philip Torrone of MAKE magazine.]

    Tagged: advertising attention span film modern life security tv
    • I love America but many Americans are stupid and mediocre and anti-creativity.

      No crime was committed here. To think a blinking cartoon is a “bomb”, that is an explosively idiotic perception.

      I hate the mainstream media and I’m glad the two guys mocked the reporters by focusing on Hairstyles of the 1970s in their press conference.

      I also take issue, friend, with your concept of marketing “waging war” on consumers.

      Effective, ethical marketing is getting a relevant message of problem solving to a target audience who needs a problem solved.

    • Overreacted? Of course they ALL did. Especially MSM by parrotting immediately back to the pubic all of law enforcement’s favorite key words, stuff like: IEDs, suspicious packages, explosive devices, hoax, etc.

      I love how Big Media, who got so royally punked in this whole circus act when those clowns started prattling BS live on Fox, etc., tried to spin their severe punking into thoughtful news packages about “guerilla marketing.” Explaining “what exactly IS guerilla marketing?” to their geriatric audience out there in assisted living land, the ones already being fed a steady diet of poop drug ads in between the “news” scramblings. No wonder anyone over 60 seems so clueless…

      “What did Charlie Gibson just say there, Ruth? What’s all this about chatter about “vanilla marketing?”

      You get the point…

      Did they go too far? What do you mean? They got people’s attention, didn’t they? Every person in their target audience now knows exactly what teen aqua hunger force is (Did I get the name right? I don’t know. I’m 50.)

      What I’m waiting for is the revelation that, after two weeks of waiting for somebody to notice or care about their stupid signs, the person to place an anonymous, hysterical call to Boston police about a bomb making a rude gesture was also someone at the marketing firm.

    • WaxTadpole

      I think it was a brilliant marketing campaign, with or without the authorities turning it into a bomb scare. I’m not a huge fan of Aqua Teen, but I do appreciate the creativity of the show.

      No one was threatened here. The authorities over-reacted and looked stupid. Charging these guys with a crime and wrapping it in the flag of “protecting america” was just offensive and pathetic. America the brave? Looks more like America the paranoid to me.

    • Mike

      This topic makes me so angry I have a difficult time talking about it, but here it goes…

      Turner did not go to far. Perhaps, at most, they did not think of every outcome of the campaign. This does not affect my opinion of them as a corporation because no one was harmed. The only damage that was done, was done by Boston. They freaked out and caused every bit of the panic. My question here: Instead of spending a million dollars in police/emergency dollars, why not go pull one down, realize it was an improvise lite brite, and move on?

      Anyway, there is a line you have to draw when it comes to viral advertising but Turner did not really come near it.

    • I suspect that I may fit a slightly older demographic than the other posters here…while I think it’s highly unlikely that terrorists are familiar with Aqua Teen Hunger Force, I think the Boston police behaved, on the whole, appropriately. Electronic devices dangling from bridges? all over town? and on the same day that two improvised pipe bombs were also found in Boston? (that bit of context seems to get left out of the story). Crazy people do crazy things, like try to bomb landmarks. Sometimes they succeed.

      More interesting to me is the generational gap, both technological, and cultural. Sites like this should be forums for a sustained debate, but this site and online sites like it are mostly populated by folks forty and under, I’d wager. It’s likely that the older netizens read different sites, and their comments are just as homogeneous as the ones above mine are. Is this the kindler, gentler world online utopians envision, or are we just self-selecting into different online tribes?

      Like Mark, I wonder where advertising’s need for perpetual escalation and provocation will lead. I for one am not eager to see the citiscape morph into a dazzling visual array of corporate icons.

      Finally, isn’t “hipster advertising” an oxymoron? Aren’t we really witnessing the cooptation of a hipster/graffiti aesthetic by Big Business? Mix in a little astroturf and a pinch of faux populism (“Vote for your favorite Idol!”), and it doesn’t really seem so hip anymore.

    • David

      I think that any stunt that can reveal the sheer idiocy of our public officials, elected or otherwise, is almost always a good thing. This episode makes the city of Boston appear supremely incompetent, not least for the reason that these “devices” (which look disturbingly harmless) had been installed for nearly 2 weeks.

      IMO Grayson brings up a very good point about the media talking heads, who seem to be oblivious to some of the tactics that are used to promote their own television programs. An understanding of how modern PR operates must be beyond the grasp of anyone whose job solely involves reading PR spin from a teleprompter every day–or putting it in print (as in the case of Judith Miller and the other Iraq war salespersons, unwitting or otherwise).

    • Margaret,
      You bring up some interesting points about a generational gap and what’s acceptable in borderline marketing tactics. I’m not sure about the demographics of the commenters here, but overall, my blog audience has a pretty wide spread of readers in different ages — at least according to my recent reader survey.

      It is a slippery slope, though. If Turner can get away with this, what will advertisers do next? We respond in shock and horror at the ways ads sneak into our life (on cell phones?! on player’s jerseys?! on stadiums?!) and then we accept it with no thought. It’s no wonder magazines like Adbusters and prank culture-jamming have become so popular in this war against invasive advertising and marketing in our culture.

    • Hi, Mark. While it’s probably true that this site has its fair share of diversity, it seemed the posters were fairly homogeneous on this topic, which makes one wonder… is this idea of a generational gap over Aqua Teen a fiction? Maybe hipness is not based on chronology, but attitude. (That’s what we old geezers tend to say, anyway). Perhaps instead the fault line that divides us is something like one’s position vis a vis the postmodern landscape, not age.

    • Drew

      When little blinking cartoon characters start freaking us out, the terrorists will have won.

    • jason

      I read about this in The Onion of all places, so I was sure I must’ve misunderstood something. All I could find, at first, were articles on how people felt, not the actual story. The apology. The arrest, the videotaping of the bomb squad.
      finally, finally, finally I started to see pictures.
      It looks like a lite-brite hooked up to batteries, and this is what scared people? It doesn’t even look like a bomb.

    • Mary Loftus

      I think the whole silly thing could have been avoided if Turner had just cleared the campaign with the city officials. They are, or should be, aware of the current cautious atmosphere. Where are the minds in the business?

    • jsh1980

      And the graffiti tactics used by guerrilla marketers really defeat the explaination of graffiti justified as public art in the first place (meaning it is a work by and for a private enterprise rather than by and for the public). “According to many art researchers, particularly in the Netherlands and in Los Angeles, that type of public art is, in fact an effective tool of social emancipation or in the achievement of a political goal.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graffiti http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_art) If graffiti is just another advertising tactic then there is no real excuse to use property without paying for it. It becomes even more explicitly a form of vandalism- a use of property for proprietary purposes without compensation.

      This is all just my opinion. I’m sure that there are many people who see a world of all advertisements as paradise or really do enjoy being advertized to. Guerilla marketing seems new and fresh now but if consumers embrace it then everyone will begin using it. I can imagine how anoying guerrilla ad spam might be. It probably won’t seem novel and fun in mass quantities.

    • Tony

      Marketing morons will someday (hopefully) recognize that the vast majority of Americans hate all of the advertising that is being thrown at us. We all know that advertising is necessary, but I agree that it feels like the advertisers are waging war on America. We spend way to much money trying to avoid the UNWANTED ads.

      Why do you think some programs, such as those that sell items directly on TV, are still on the air? Because people want to learn about products. The KEY is that we want the ads when we want them NOT every time we do anything in life. Wake up and provide information on products and advertisements in a way that is not intrusive. How about an all advertisement network on cable? I will go there when I am looking for something or when I want to learn what is new out in the marketplace.

      Guerilla marketing should be outlawed and idiots who think that a flashing light is a bomb should be required to sit and watch commercials for 8 hours a day…since that is all they are capable of doing.

    • This movie is OBVIOUSLY going to rock. Pretty clever marketing, super well thought out; the movie had better live up to this level of hype, and it will or else they never would have green-lighted this size caper.

      What will suck, of course, is when this rocking movie runs its course, and another lamer movie sticks weird blinking lights up all around town… and then another bad movie, and then another…. advertising = a hidden tax on our precious attention spans….

      let us all salute this having been done once, and dread having it being done again and again, “ad infinitum, ad nauseam” [puns, sorry]

    • Nicholas

      I think that all sides went a bit to far I think that the Advertisers should have told somebody and that the Authorities could have relized that it was a cartoon charicter and then thought to remove it BUT you can never be to carfule and I think that instead of blowing things up like you said I think that the google way of advertising will prevail and more free add suported services will show up to give another space for adds but eventualy we will finde a way to get rid of thoes too.

    • The response was honest, the marketing plan worked and drew lots of attention and is still a popular topic to this day revealing its’ longevity too.

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