February 1, 2007
Cartoon Network/Boston Fiasco and the Connotations of Labeling It a "Hoax"

What is there to say about the nuttiness that has been happening around Boston and Cambridge in regard to the Turner Broadcasting marketing ploy through marketing firm Interference that was misinterpreted as a series of terrorist bombs?

The promotional stunt bombed all right, especially due to the perhaps disproportionate response to what was basically a lights show around the area. As Joe at Techdirt says, "It's safe to say that this isn't what they hoped to see happen." But, bottom line: while I think it was an ill-conceived concept not to have alerted someone that the devices would be placed there and perhaps this response should have been considered, this was an unfortunate misunderstanding and the reaction from the Massachusetts government and the news media made the situation much worse in fear-mongering and now in trying to turn this into an intentional hoax rather than a misunderstanding.

Immediately, I want to clarify, for the people who have e-mailed. Yes, Turner Broadcasting is one of the partners of the Convergence Culture Consortium. And, no, we had nothing to do with advising, planning, or anything else with the situation yesterday. I know...surprising, since MIT has long been home to the hoax. But I haven't even talked with anyone from Turner about the situation at this point, although I would like to publicly extend my sympathies for how this has all fallen out through the news media and our government's response.

The other thing to point out is just how insular the college campus would be. People started e-mailing me comments about the bomb scare during the day, and I had no clue what they were talking about. Family members called, concerned for our safety at the terror that was being described to them on the news networks. I didn't feel in any danger, since I didn't even know what was going on until about 9 or 10 that night. Guess we college folks really are removed from Boston life.

But the fact that Storrow Drive was shut down and the news stations basically interrupted all their programming to cover this great terrorist event proves both that Turner and the marketing folks probably should have thought more about the potential political ramifications of their plan and cleared it with the proper authorities beforehand to make sure this happened and also that our country has perhaps gone a little overboard in the name of homeland security and fear, "in a post-9/11 world," as the mayor said. The fact that "post-9/11 world" has become a regular phrase demonstrates the ways in which, more than five years after the attack on the World Trade Center, we have let the goals of that attack to disrupt the freedoms of American culture succeed. Find more information on what happened here.

I'm particularly interested in the response across the blogosphere to this example of marketing gone wrong. I'd say that it at least proves that ubiquity of advertising in public spaces may not be the best route for political and infrastruture realities such as these.

There are certainly plenty of people indignant at Turner, but what most surprises me is the number of people who write about this as if the "hoax" was that the Cartoon Network thought that these would be interpreted as bombs. Of course, even our governor is using the word "hoax". For instance, W. David Stephenson writes as if Turner planned these devices to be fake bombs. He believes that now terrorists can dress up their bombs as media properties and people will just think it's a marketing ploy. Guess we should be suspicious of all advertising from this point forward. And Goldman and Associates have their own reaction to the incident and where Turner went wrong from a PR standpoint.

Then there was the decidedly conservative blogosphere response directed at "the liberals at Turner" that took on again almost religious undertones. That "liberals" phrase is from Dave at Political Dogs, who writes, "Turner isn't sorry that their idiot stunt caused major problems. Like I said before, they're sorry we overeracted. Let's make them sorry" (sic).

Mark Goren calls for a boycott of the Cartoon Network. "Boycott the station. Cancel your package." Colleen Doran writes, "Thanks to the folks at Turner Network for behaving like a bunch of punks and inconveniencing hundreds of thousands of people. Leave the infantile behavior in the cartoons, will ya?"

However, many more people are angry at the way the situation was handled by Boston and Massachusetts politicians in particular. The sarcasm directed toward the fervent and almost religious sense of indignation by Massachusetts politicians were lampooned by many folks, plenty of them Bostonians. Perhaps this picture says it all. Bloggers such as J.E. Barringer in the brokencarnage Live Journal and Pnkgrl's Live Journal demonstrate some of the sarcasm from people who think this was major overreaction to a marketing stunt. Many MySpace users had the same reaction. Also, see this parody to the reaction from Scott Ott.

People are particularly angry at the arrests being made in calling this a "hoax" at all. See Slamland's comments: "Even charging the guy, let alone sentencing him, would be a gross miscarriage of justice. He was just doing his job..." Petitions are being circulated for those arrested.

At Making Light, Teresa Nielsen Hayden demonstrates great cynicism to the government's response, since they were "calling the incident a deliberate hoax (I don't see it), denying that there was anything funny about it, denying that they overreacted, and congratulating each other and the local authorities on their fast and efficient non-overreaction time in responding to this grave threat."

What do I think? I think the citizens who discovered devices that they found suspicious should be commended but that the politicians and news industry surrounding the event should be ashamed at the sensationalizing and fear-mongering surrounding the event. There had to be an indication fairly early on that these were not dangerous devices, yet the news reporters on the scene were talking about the devices being "detonated" and giving some of my relatives in Kentucky near-heart attacks. I like what Lost Remote said: "Sure, attaching suspicious-looking devices to bridges isn't the smartest idea to promote a show, but really, are state and local officials going too far because they're embarrassed they didn't realize the connection sooner?"

The folks at Lost Remote were actually part of breaking the story, a shame since at least CNN should have had company connections to figure out what these images were. Perhaps this shows the difference between the viral nature of "citizen reporting" and the ability of the news networks to get it right. As Steve Safran noted in that story, "In the era of instant communications, nobody communicated." That includes the news organizations, Turner, and Massachusetts officials, to turn what should have been a small scare into a major event. Others have commented on the CNN connection, including this particularly cynical response from Kevin Featherly, writing about this as an example of corporate synergy between CNN and Cartoon Network.

On that note, I like the Dot Bomb piece from Ann Handley on Marketing Profs: Daily Fix, who points out both that Turner and Interference should have been more responsible but also that homeland security, in their efforts to create ways to counter terrorism, should find ways to connect into the blogosphere, since they would have avoided the whole mess in the first place. She writes, "Boston officials could have avoided the emergency response drill if they only read bloggers or trolled Flickr. Interactive Designer Todd Vanderlin two weeks ago was psyched to find one of the little guys up on a Boston bridge. He promptly grabbed it to sell it on eBay. He uploaded photos of the stunt here on January 15th." Joshua Glenn at Brainiac, meanwhile, points out how citizens figured out the irony that citizens figured out the mystery well before officials. It's Global Frequency, come to life.

Bottom line--the whole this is just misfortunate, for Bostonians, for Turner, for Interference, and for the people arrested. Interference should have thought of this beforehand, perhaps, but I don't think their mistake is criminal, certainly not for the people just doing their job who are now being threatened with years in prison for some deliberate hoax. That use of the word "hoax" is the most unfortunate response to this situation, and it will be interesting to follow the legal fallout based on the connotation of that word.


On February 1, 2007 at 7:28 PM, Luthor said:

Colleen Doran is a conservative blogger? Since when? Nice bit of research you've done there. Is the rest of your piece as sloppy and biased?

Thinking Turner Network's marketing ploy was stupid doesn't make you a conservative with "religious undertones". It just means you think Turner network's marketing was stupid.


Sorry for the confusion, Luthor, but I wasn't referring to Colleen Doran's post as conservative with "religious undertones." If you read back up, that comment was about Dave at Political Dogs, and I included the quotes that pretty well identified Dave's ideology.

I will make the sentences about Mark and Colleen's comments a different paragraph, however, in case other people like you get confused.


Re your 'bottom line,' I wonder whether or not the entire shebang was 'unfortunate' or not. It may have all been quite purposeful; there was some news report yesterday (MSNBC maybe?) that one of the artists got a call from Interference and was told to keep his connection to the project 'on the dl' and thus perpetuate the fear and/or confusion...giving it more legs in the mediascape before the truth came out. And the idea that Turner's president goes to full-page ads in Boston's 'old media' papers this a.m. to apologize, while Inteference and the 'new media' artists are either unavailable for comment or talking gibberish (as the artists did in their 'haircut' press conference yesterday), suggests a thoughtful, two-pronged, 'good cop/bad cop' media strategy. Controvery is a proven communications tool, especially good at breaking through media clutter, and obviously both Interfefence and their client Turner thought about lots of potential outcomes beforehand. I think the word 'hoax' is absolutely appropriate here, as the likely purpose of any of those 'outcomes' was to make people talk/wonder/buzz about what was going on; the artists' behavior immediately afterwards supports this definition.


It seems that what may finally turn the tide against fear-mongering is not a debacle with the FCC, but rather a Mooninite giving us the finger. This is patently ridiculous on a variety of levels. It's ridiculous that civic authorities weren't alerted to marketing materials posted in their area. The reaction on the part of Boston police and other shrilling harpies is even more ridiculous. How many crates enter Boston Harbor unchecked by Homeland Security? -That's- where attention should be.

I'm with Kevin Featherly on this one, I think. The synergy is scarily convenient. This isn't to say that it's intentional. But you can bet that Turner isn't truly worried about this issue. They'll find a way to make lead into gold, here, and the ATHF movie will probably do even better business thanks to this. For as much backlash as their is against Cartoon Network now, there will be even more at the box office on the part of teens with credit cards who can only vote with their dollars.


I should also add that I plan on blogging this, and (like many others, I'm sure) I will be crediting this post.

On February 2, 2007 at 3:27 PM, Jiminy said:

Just remember, when the news media doesn't have any "real" news to report, they still have to have the evening show, the morning show, the daily paper, and news radio broadcast. No news does not mean no news show...


This can just be a catch-all response to some fascinating comments.

To Jonathan, I think you have a fascinating theory and am not denouncing that every conglomerate goes after press that in ways that are not in the public's best interest at times. Still, I can't imagine that this was as deliberated strategy as you intimate. Let me just say this--while it did get people talking, I still don't think the multi-million dollars the companies may be paying out is quite worth the publicity they are getting back. I just don't think this was a carefully orchestrated plan to fool the authorities into thinking there was a national security scare.

But that's not to discredit Madeline's idea, either, that Turner's job is now to make the best of the situation that they can. There has to be a fine line here, though, between transgressiveness and sarcastic rebellion and connotations of true disrespect for very real security issues. As I've said before, I applaud the people who first noticed these devices and reported them, but it's just a shame this got expanded into a "national crisis."

And, yes, Jiminy, I use that phrase to reflect the hyperbole of our 24-hour news media. CNN is as complicit as everyone else in this one. It's not that there's not enough news to fill 24 hours a day, but there's not a staff to cover that news, and much of that news isn't sexy enough to drive the ratings I guess.

On May 9, 2007 at 1:24 AM, David Bohmfalk said:

Seems like people are just letting Cartoon Network blow off, but I've had it with them. I used to like them in the old days, watching shows I hadn't seen since I was a kid, like "Johnny Quest", but as time went on, they got away from good programming. I was able to still defend them with some of their mucus and scatological-related shows, but I started having problems with shows that took pot shots at Christians and Christianity, especially when they didn't take any at any other religions, just Christianity. But this last insult, in the form of a commercial that advertises a new cartoon featuring biblical characters fighting has stepped over the line. I'm through with Cartoon Network and will seek to boycott their advertisers.