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Over the edge?

It’s all over the news that a guerilla marketing effort for a Cartoon Network show went horribly awry last week. Boston and Massachusetts police and their bomb squads were out in force Jan. 31 after receiving panicked calls over battery-powered devices strewn across the city. Major roads and subway lines were shut and traffic disrupted.

Two people hired by Turner Broadcasting System’s Interference ad agency who placed the devices – 38 magnetic signs with cartoon characters on them – were arrested, accused of causing panic and disorderly conduct. And Turner Broadcasting, parent of Cartoon Network and part of Time Warner Inc., may face huge legal bills and reparations in the terrorism scare.

That’s what happens when you get adventurous in an age when everyone’s walking on eggshells.

Turner Broadcasting has apologized for its actions and killed the campaign. But it won’t cut ice. Boston’s mayor, the Massachusetts State Police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives are determined to take their pound of flesh. And all this suffering to promote Adult Swim’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” animated series on Cartoon Network – a talking box of French fries and his fast-food friends.

To top it all, a YouTube video describes how the arrested duo placed the panels on Boston streets.

What do we add to the debate? That common sense should have prevailed? That cities like Boston and New York, given their 9/11 history, are always on edge and official cooperation must prudently be sought before marketing and public relations efforts like these?

Or do we think it was an overreaction? That some people – we guess mainly youngsters – recognized the characters for what they were? That people should lighten up?

Who knows? Wiser minds at Cartoon Network would have taken Boston’s authorities into confidence. They also would have anticipated that not all PR is good PR.

It’s tough for marketers to catch the attention of consumers. As mass media’s attraction erodes, events, guerrilla marketing, online video, blogs, social media Web sites and online marketing become more appealing. We live in a different age, one of heightened awareness and caution and instant reaction. Marketers who play too safe risk getting drowned out in the noise, while those who stick their necks out may end up losing their heads.

Interestingly, U.S. marketers face this same dilemma in direct mail campaigns. Do you inject more humor into your campaign or do you stick to the tried-and-true of benefits and offer combined with call to action? In a huge consumer economy like that of the United States, one misstep is a slow-moving product or fired ad agency.

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