Boston's reaction to marketing campaign debated
BOSTON -- In nine cities across the country, blinking electronic signs displaying a profane, boxy-looking cartoon character caused barely a stir.
But in Boston, the signs -- some with protruding wires -- sent a wave of panic across the city, prompting officials to shut down highways and bridges and send out bomb squads.
Something that may have been mildly amusing in other cities was not funny here, the city where hijackers launched the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The question many were asking Thursday was: Did Boston overreact?
The answer depends on whom you ask. Young, hip Bostonians who are familiar with the unconventional marketing tactics used by many companies tended to see the city's reaction as unmitigated hysteria.
Tracy O'Connor, 34, a retail manager, called Boston's response "silly and insane," contrasting it with the response in the other cities where no one reported any concerns about the devices -- an advertising gimmick for the Cartoon Network TV show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force."
"We're the laughing stock," she said.
But public safety officials, as well as a large segment of Boston's older generation, condemned the publicity campaign as unthinkable in today's post-9/11 world.
"Just a little over a mile away from the placement of the first device, a group of terrorists boarded airplanes and launched an attack on New York City," police Commissioner Edward Davis said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"The city clearly did not overreact. Had we taken any other steps, we would have been endangering the public," he said.
Davis said that as calls were coming in about the electronic signs in rapid succession Wednesday afternoon, police also received reports of two devices that resembled pipe bombs and had a confirmed report of a man walking down the hallways of New England Medical Center making a rambling speech about "God getting us today" and "This would be a sorry day."
Davis said authorities still were looking into how the calls alerting them to the devices originated. He said he didn't know of any calls coming in via the Boston 911 line.
Officials found 38 blinking electronic signs on bridges, a subway station, a hospital, Fenway Park, and other high-profile spots in and around the city.
By contrast, in New York City, officers went to the various locations amid the hysteria in Boston and found only two of the devices -- both attached to an overpass at 33rd Street and the West Side Highway. Police said it did not appear any were placed on the subway or landmarks such as Empire State Building or Brooklyn Bridge.
"People can be smug and say all you have to do is look at this and know this is not an explosive device, but the truth of the matter is that you can't tell what it is until it's disrupted," Davis said. "If anybody wants to volunteer to take the place of the bomb officers the next time we find a device attached to a bridge or a subway station, I'd be more than willing to take names."
Officials have vowed to hold responsible Turner Broadcasting Inc., the parent company of the Cartoon Network which airs the surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball.
Turner executives said they never intended for the devices to scare anyone.
Two men who authorities say were paid to place the devices around the city pleaded not guilty Thursday to placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct. Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, were released on $2,500 cash bond -- apparently amused by the situation. They face up to five years in prison.
After getting out of jail, they met reporters and television cameras and launched into a nonsensical discussion of hair styles of the 1970s. But as they walked off, Berdovsky gave a more serious comment.
"We need some time to really sort things out and, you know, figure out our response to this situation in other ways than talking about hair," Berdovsky said. "So if you could just give us some privacy for a little bit. ... I will be trying to make sense of all of it real soon."
Later Thursday night, Berdovsky issued a statement through a Boston law firm. It said he was hired last fall to place the devices at specified locations, and that he "never imagined" they would be perceived as dangerous.
"I regret that this incident has created such anguish and disruption for the residents and law enforcement officers of this city," the statement said. "I certainly never intended to do anything to frighten this community, which has welcomed and nurtured me for 10 years."
The devices didn't prompt calls of concern in any of the nine other cities where Turner said the devices were located. But after Boston's scare, police in the other cities fanned out to find and remove them.
Some enterprising people got to the devices before police: At least seven were on sale Thursday afternoon on the Internet auction site eBay, ranging in price from $500 to $2,100 with several hours left in the auctions. Entrepreneurs also listed stickers and T-shirts with the crudely drawn cartoon character saying "Up Yours Boston" and "Aqua Teen Hunger Force is The Bomb."
Jo Baltz, a bookkeeper for Portland's World Cup Coffee and Tea in Portland, Ore., had one sitting on a filing cabinet Thursday and called "him" cute.
"I don't know if we are just being naive, or the panic just hasn't hit here yet. I don't think 'bomb' ever hit our minds, we all just watched him and laughed at him," she said.
Most of Boston's colleagues in law enforcement in the other cities chose their words carefully.
"I wouldn't want to give my opinion but in today's world it's better safe than sorry. Someone (in Boston) clearly thought there was a threat," said Atlanta police Officer Joe Cobb. "I'm not sure Atlanta would have handled it any differently if they were found in certain locations. Thankfully what happened in Boston wasn't repeated here."
In the Seattle area, authorities thought the devices were "so obviously not suspicious."
"In this day and age, whenever anything remotely suspicious shows up, people get concerned -- and that's good," King County sheriff's Sgt. John Urquhart said. "However, people don't need to be concerned about this. These are cartoon characters giving the finger."
Tobe Berkowitz, an advertising professor at Boston University, said it's easy to understand why there is a generational gap between the way the target audience for the promotional campaign reacted and the way older Bostonians reacted.
"For people who are hip and live in the world of blogs and all sorts of cool alternative media, it's one thing," he said, "but for the rest of us ... they don't get it as a marketing or a clever event, they see it as a huge disruption of their lives."
The publicity campaign was conceived by the Adult Swim marketing department and approved by the head of the Cartoon network, Turner spokeswoman Shirley Powell said Thursday.
She said the devices had been up for two weeks around the country and the network had not received one call or complaint about them.
"This was never intended to be a marketing campaign designed to create fear or public safety concerns," she said. "We were simply promoting a TV show. If we had ever perceived this to be something threatening safety, we would never have proceeded with it."
The network told the marketing company to decide where the devices should be placed, with the mandate they should be in places likely to be seen by young men. Adult Swim's target audience is men aged 18-to-24.
The marketing company that placed the signs, Interference Inc. of New York City, did not return calls seeking comment and its offices were closed Thursday.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)