Monday, February 05, 2007

Publicity at Any Risk?

By now many, many people have heard about the distribution by Turner Broadcasting of suspicious boxes fronted by neon signs with extruding electrical cords — on bridges, in subway stations and various other sites in 10 American cities — to promote the Cartoon Network’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” The promotion generated more attention (see the Wall Street Journal) than ever anticipated, but largely for negative rather than positive reasons.

In Boston, it prompted fears of terrorism, and the city deployed bomb squads, the police and others to check out the flashing boxes. The subway system was temporarily stopped, inconveniencing millions of people. Early on, the city reported $750,000 in expenditures to avert a pending disaster that turned out to be a hoax.

From a “crisis management” perspective, Turner's chairman and CEO, Phil Kent, quickly and correctly issued a public apology and offered to do what he could to make amends to Boston … including helping to locate and remove the remaining devices. But all of the tumult might have been prevented had the Cartoon Network, its advertising department and/or its marketing firm alerted each city about what was planned. According to reports, the marketing firm did not return media inquiries; it should have responded and referred the media to its client, the Cartoon Network, for comment.

But, at bottom, did the Cartoon Network achieve its aim? They undoubtedly got more publicity and word of mouth than they ever dreamed. And I would anticipate that they will have drummed up a big audience of curiosity seekers for the cartoon. But at what cost?

In a YouTube environment, anything with shock value goes. Shock value works in today’s society because of the information tsunami — and the need to break through that clutter. If you’re looking to create buzz at any risk, you take actions like this; but if you are looking to be responsive and responsible, you have to be more discriminating.

In this post 9-11 security conscious world, it is prudent for companies contemplating shock campaigns to understand that their actions can have negative reactions. The public has been warned to be vigilant and report anything out of the ordinary. That said, the public also has a short memory. In three weeks, the vast majority of the public will no doubt have forgotten this incident and who was responsible. In terms of the reputation impact, it may turn out to be a blip. In fact, the publicity surge might even encourage others to do something like this again, which is most unfortunate.

Maybe it is not until something like this has a deleterious effect on a company’s financials that it will change. Rather than waiting for that to happen, let’s hope this inspires the broadcasting industry to set the bar higher for tomorrow’s campaigns.

Technorati Tags: Public Relations, Business, Ethics, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Cartoon Network, Boston, Crisis Management, Phil Kent, Buzz Marketing, YouTube, Turner Broadcasting, Crisis Management


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent blog, Ken. My take on the Boston guerilla marketing paper is that it is oh-so typical of today's so-called hip and creative maketing types--"Look how hip and creative our generation is compared to you old foggies, with our edgy, shock guerilla marketing tactics." But at the end of the day, what they are really doing is demonstrating how out of whack their priorities are--anything goes in the name of shock and creativity for the sake of the client--in this case a cartoon. It still comes down to valuing greed over basic human values, such as thinking about the impact upon other people. So thousands of people were inconvenienced. Mothers couldn't pick up their children at day care. Doctors were unable to get to hospitals. Old people were scared out of their wits. Who cares? Just look how hip and creative we are. And my client's cartoon is more important than any patient waiting on an operating table.

Monday, February 05, 2007 11:39:00 PM  
Blogger Ken Makovsky said...

Thanks, Karl. I’m on the same page.

Monday, February 12, 2007 3:48:00 PM  
Blogger dhex said...

The real story here is how the Boston Police Department has managed to escape being called out on the carpet for their overreaction despite the campaign being conducted in several major cities, including NYC. I find it very hard to believe they didn't have a single cop under 30 who did't say "wait a minute, these are from a cartoon!"

I don't see putting up lite-brite signs as a tremendously unethical or even shocking maneuver, but at the same time I am in their demographic...perhaps that's the point. Perhaps this episode was a classic generational clash that got a little out of hand due to the BPD's actions? Hence why they've gotten such little flack.

Along those same lines, the press conference by the two folks who were arrested as part of the street team (another ridiculous move by the BPD, by the way) was one of the most transcendentally lucid things to come out of the 24 hour news cycle. No doubt advised not to say anything by their attorneys, their responses enraged a media that wouldn't have wasted three minutes on someone nabbed for tagging a street corner or putting up stickers illegally as part of a, say, record company or magazine campaign. Of course, those folks wouldn't have been arrested and charged with inciting terror, either; but for the most part stickers and graffitti doesn't get blown up by the BPD every day either.

The response from Fox and CNN commentators was telling - they were OUTRAGED that someone wasn't taking this as seriously as they were. Again, perhaps a generational issue, or perhaps a slight recognition that part of the reaso such tactics are interesting to people (even in the service of government PSA's like is because the media requires constant feeding. Flashy and novel makes for good food.

Monday, February 19, 2007 1:03:00 PM  

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