Freakin’ out in Boston

By now everyone has heard about the so called “terrorist scare” in Boston caused by promotional electronic devices placed at strategic locations around the city by a company promoting a TV show for the Cartoon Network. This story fascinates me from a couple of different angles: not only was I just writing about the highs and lows of promotional marketing, but I also have had some vicarious experience in the past with attaching stealth objects to public transportation fixtures in Boston (my former home town).

Had the same level of public paranoia existed back when my friend pulled off his prank, who knows what the reaction might have been. For most of the day yesterday, the city was virtually paralyzed after blinking signs with exposed 1-foot square circuit boards were found on bridges and other high-profile spots; highways were closed, the bomb squad blew up several of the devices, and the city reportedly spent over half a million dollars in police costs before realizing they were harmless.

To me, nothing quite so visibly shows how jumpy we’ve become in our post-9/11 world than to see a major American city thrown into utter panic over a promotion for a talking milkshake, a box of fries, and a meatball. The devices had been in place for two to three weeks in ten cities across the country, and no one gave them a second thought until yesterday’s mass hysteria. Now Boston’s mayor, Thomas Mennino, is saying “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.”

Two local men hired by Turner to put up the signs have been arrested for disorderly conduct (a “catch-all” charge if ever there was one); one of them, a 27-year old artist by the name of Daniel Berdovsky, told the Boston Globe that he was “a little kind of freaked out,” by the furor. “I find it kind of ridiculous that they’re making these statements on TV that we must not be safe from terrorism, because they were up there for three weeks and no one noticed,” Berdovsky said. “It’s pretty commonsensical to look at them and say this is a piece of art and installation.” Berdovsky’s attorney told the press, “It’s very disturbing that what was just an employment for a struggling artist turned into some major misunderstanding.” A Turner company spokesperson said, “We regret that they were mistakenly thought to pose any danger.”

Other cities where the devices were placed did not appear to freak out quite like Boston did. In Seattle and several suburbs, removal of the signs was low-key. “We haven’t had any calls to 911 regarding this,” said a Seattle police spokesman. Police in Philadelphia said they believe their city had 56 devices. In New York City, local news broadcasts showed images of the devices being collected, and the New York Post reported that police confiscated 41 in Manhattan and Brooklyn.

The whole thing reminds me very much of Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” 1939 Halloween radio broadcast, when panicked listeners believed we had been invaded by aliens. “Terrorists” are our new Martians.

But instead of, say, pointing out how vigilant they are about public safety (which should theoretically make the citizens of Boston feel more secure), officials are clearly so embarrassed by their over-reaction to the “threat” that the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is now investigating whether Turner Broadcasting and any other companies should be criminally charged and forced to pay restitution to the city.

Granted, this was probably not the smartest promotion in the history of marketing, although I think it’s highly ironic that nearly everyone in the country has now heard of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force“. Did you know there was an Aqua Teens movie? And that it is described as an “action epic”? And that it features a flaming chicken? You do now, so perhaps from that perspective the campaign was a smashing success.

However, yesterday’s incident also demonstrates that if our society has become this fearful, then the terrorists may have already succeeded in their mission as well. That bothers me a whole lot more than an ill-conceived publicity stunt.

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