Cartoon Net Promo Sparks Boston Scare

NEW YORK A marketing campaign for Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force turned into a daylong terrorism scare for the city of Boston and a public relations nightmare for Turner Broadcasting System over a bunch of blinking boxes that were mistaken for bombs placed around the city and elsewhere nationwide.

Major disruptions occurred throughout metropolitan Boston, beginning at 8 a.m., and then in the afternoon, as calls came in about suspicious-looking devices attached to bridges, roadways and even at an MBTA bus station.

Two Boston-area men hired to set up the materials pleaded not guilty on Thursday to charges of placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct. The hoax charge is a felony.

At a news conference late Wednesday, city and state officials vowed legal action all the way up the line to Turner Broadcasting in Atlanta for what one official called “a reckless stunt.”

“It is unconscionable that in this post-9/11 environment that Turner Broadcasting would do something like this in an urban setting. … Perhaps next time they’ll think twice about an ad campaign that puts a city at risk,” Boston Police Superintendent Ed Davis said.

Turner apologized twice Wednesday in statements, saying that the “magnetic devices that pose no danger” had been placed in 10 cities, including Boston, New York and Los Angeles, to promote Adult Swim’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force animated series.

The laptop-size blinking lights in the shape of “Hunger Force” characters Err and Ignignokt caused the chaos and emergency response. Police said five of the eight looked the same but that two others resembled pipe bombs.

Davis said in a news conference late Wednesday that police initially weren’t sure whether they were dealing with a series of real explosive devices and then decoys.

Turner said there were 40 boxes situated around Boston, though it wasn’t clear whether that included the eight that caused the scare. There are a number of others in nine other cities. Turner said the purpose of the marketing campaign was solely to promote the animated series.

Turner said executives realized Wednesday afternoon that its marketing campaign—which sources said was carried out by New York-based guerrilla marketers Interference—were being mistaken for bombs and notified federal law enforcement officials that they were harmless.

“We apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger,” TBS chairman and CEO Phil Kent said. “We appreciate the gravity of this situation and, like any responsible company would, are putting all necessary resources toward understanding the facts surrounding it as quickly as possible.”

Turner declined to make Kent or other executives available for interviews. Interference did not respond to calls and e-mails Wednesday afternoon.

A livid Boston Mayor Thomas Menino promised legal action against Turner and others responsible for the campaign.

“It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme,” Menino said. “I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today’s incidents.”

It wasn’t clear how much the emergency response cost, but it involved the city, Massachusetts state police, the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and others. Estimates range in the millions.

The first suspicious package was found shortly after 8 a.m. EST Wednesday on Interstate 93 north in Boston. The package, which was attached to a steel beam, led to a closure of the busy highway during the height of rush hour; two hours later, the city’s bomb squad blew it apart. It later was determined to be harmless but constructed similarly to an improvised explosive device.

Interference has been referred to as having expertise on “PR-generating stunts” and has worked for CNN and HBO (both Time Warner-owned along with Turner) as well as Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, General Electric and Godiva. But no one at the company responded to a detailed phone message and e-mail. Turner said all of the advertisements were being taken down immediately, regardless of the location.

“We’re not playing around. This is about keeping a city on edge,” Menino said. “It’s about public safety, and when it comes to public safety, we’re throwing everything we have at it.” He later told WBZ-AM that he would “throw the book” at Turner and said it is a felony punishable of up to five years in prison.

Boston has been the subject of terrorist threats in the recent past and had a role in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. The two groups of terrorists who commandeered the planes that hit the World Trade Center towers started the day’s journey on planes that took off from Boston’s Logan Airport.