Tuesday, February 6

Paying For Promotion: Turner Broadcasting

In a continuing tale of two companies that thought they were being bold with guerilla marketing, Turner Broadcasting Systems and Interference Inc. have agreed to pay the city of Boston some $2 million for the advertising campaign that caused a bomb scare.

The campaign, which was originally budgeted in the thousands (with freelancers making a few hundred each), will be forever immortalized as one of the biggest abuses of guerilla marketing in history. For its part, Turner Broadcasting has handled its crisis communication like professionals.

It has released several statements taking full responsibility for the "unconventional marketing tactic" and apologizing for hardships caused to Boston area residents. Other companies would have thought to pass the buck right back at their marketing firm for the stunt, especially after some public outcry that attempts to pin the advertising debacle on Boston.

"We understand now that in today's post-Sept. 11 environment, it was reasonable and appropriate for citizens and law enforcement officials to take any perceived threat posed by our light boards very seriously and to respond as they did," the Turner statement said. Turner Broadcasting has added it will review its policies concerning local marketing efforts to ensure that they are not disruptive or threatening.

In almost complete contrast, Interference Inc. handled it crisis communication like, well, a guerilla marketing firm, going underground when the going got tough — delayed statements, slanted apologies, and no spokespeople (other than wannabe funny men freelancers who are still facing charges that will probably be dropped) offering comment for days while Turner Broadcasting took the heat. While the firm's attorney argues that the company acted with "due diligence" to correct the problems caused, it is unclear how much of the $2 million Interference Inc. will cough up.

Some people are now saying that $2 million looks like a bargain considering "the amount of publicity the Cartoon Network received for its Aqua Teen Hunger Force promotion." Not really. Most news reports last night omitted any mention of Aqua Teen Hunger Force and the Cartoon Network, preferring to focus on Turner Broadcasting and Interference, Inc. instead.

I suppose there is some truth to what people are saying though: you can't buy that kind of "bad" publicity. But it's hardly worth the praise Interference Inc. is receiving in some blog quarters, especially because such praise will only encourage other misguided firms to duplicate the stunt. The price tag, $2 million, will only become steeper.

According to others who are less sympathic to Interference Inc., The Boston Globe suggested that Interference Inc. knew about the bomb scare in Boston as early as 1:25 p.m. on Wednesday and emailed the installers, Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, asking them to keep quiet. Interference, Inc. denies this claim.

But then again, Interference Inc. did not bail the freelancers out of jail. That was handled by friends and relatives. For what it is worth, Interference, Inc. has done some amazing work in the past. The guerilla marketing for Shark Week was a stroke of brilliance without the usual vandalism associated with the company.

All this leaves us with the same question once again. Is all publicity good publicity? Let's add it all up.

• For $2 million plus, the Cartoon Network's Aqua Teen Hunger Force will best remembered, not for its scripts or entertainment value (if you like that sort of thing), for a bomb scare in Boston.

• Turner Broadcasting barely escaped brand damage, but only because it has some good crisis communicators on board. Even so, they will be slow to embrace the next wild idea because one misstep will only cause them to relive this incident.

• Interference Inc. will forever be questioned by its clients, seldom given the opportunity to break away from status quo again, making it irrelevant in the future. And that assumes anyone will want to touch them. One sidewalk stencil on your behalf from these guys and your company will be drawn right back into what might be the biggest bomb scare in marketing history.

Hmmm... it looks like a net loss to me. Somewhat off point, or maybe not, if all publicity is good publicity, it seems much safer and cheaper simply to release a sex tape.

Then again, if any good is to come out of this, it might be that CEOs will finally realize that if your agency is getting more attention than your product, you might start to shop around. Good agencies are all about the products they promote, preferring the product — not the agency — to be the focus of attention.



Rich on 2/8/07, 8:35 AM said...

Famous Last Words:

"I think in the next six months it's going to hurt the industry as a whole." — Adam Salacuse, CEO of marketing firm AltTerrain in Boston in BRANDWEEK, referring to the potential damage to guerilla marketing sub-industry.

Rich on 2/8/07, 7:59 PM said...

So Much For Publicity:

Nielsen Media Research reports “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” averaged 386,000 viewers last week among its targeted demographic of 18-to-24-year-olds. This week? It's the same.


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