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Aqua Teen Hunger Force Promotion Terrorizes Boston

A marketing ploy for the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” cartoon was mistaken for a terrorist plot and shut down Boston for several hours.

Aqua Teen Hunger Force Screencap

Boston Aqua Teen Hunger Force Terror Plot - Members of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority police, the Masachusetts State Police and the Boston Bomb Squad respond to a suspicious package found near the Sullivan Square subway station in Boston, Wednesday morning, Jan. 31, 2007. Four additional suspicious devices, similar in nature to the one found Wednesday morning, were found Wednesday afternoon in four different areas of the city. All devices proved to be hoaxes. (AP Photo/Adam Hunger) Ten blinking electronic devices planted at bridges and other spots in Boston threw a scare into the city Wednesday in what turned out to be a publicity campaign for a late-night cable cartoon. At least one of the devices depicts a character giving the finger. Highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River were shut down and bomb squads were sent in before authorities declared the devices were harmless.

“It’s a hoax — and it’s not funny,” said Gov. Deval Patrick.

Turner Broadcasting, a division of Time Warner Inc. and parent of Cartoon Network, said the devices were part of a promotion for the TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball. “The packages in question are magnetic lights that pose no danger,” Turner said in a statement. It said the devices have been in place for two to three weeks in 10 cities: Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, San Francisco and Philadelphia. “We regret that they were mistakenly thought to pose any danger,” the company said.

The marketing company responsible for the campaign, Interference Inc., had no immediate comment. A woman who answered the phone at the New York-based firm’s offices on Wednesday afternoon said the firm’s CEO was out of town and would not be able to comment until Thursday.

Police said only that they were investigating where the device came from, but an angry Mayor Thomas Menino said a stiff penalty will be pursued against whoever was responsible for the devices. “It’s about keeping a city on edge. It’s about public safety,” he said.

You’d think Interference Inc. would have trouble getting work again after this but, then again, they achieved their goal: publicity for their client. One wonders what the fallout will be for “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a show of which I’d never heard. Will all the free publicity help? Or will this negative association kill the show?

On the terrorism/homeland security front, if some marketing firm can plant blinking devices all around the infrastructure of our major cities, mostly without detection, certainly well-funded terrorist groups could do the same with more lethal variants. Indeed, hiding a bomb in an “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” container might be an effective bit of tradecraft.

UPDATE: An arrest has been made.

Boston police said Wednesday night that one person had been arrested, and authorities scheduled a news conference to provide details

[...]

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said he’ll seek to punish those responsible, and indicated that the penalty could be two to five years in prison per count. After Turner made its announcement, Menino said he was “prepared to take any and all legal action” against the company and its affiliates “for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today’s incidents.”

Homeland Security Department spokesman Russ Knocke praised Boston authorities for sharing their knowledge quickly with Washington officials and the public. “Hoaxes are a tremendous burden on local law enforcement and counter-terrorism resources and there’s absolutely no place for them in a post-9/11 world,” Knocke said.

It’s not clear what crime has been committed. Did the company call in a bomb threat?

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. audience is unaware they have been marketed to and may therefore be a form of undercover marketing (also called stealth marketing) (source) The recent campaign by The Cartoon Network to promote the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” show is arguably the most infamous example of guerilla marketing, and arguably the most “successful” in terms of societal impact: it shut down a good chunk of Boston when the electronic devices planted around the city were mistaken for explosives (or other terrorist paraphernelia), and cost

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  2. don’t be stupid. I think it was a creative promotonal campaign but just not in the right areas. They could have had it at clubs and comic book stores better. Now a bunch of adults must be asking themselves ‘What the frell is a Teen Hunger Aqua Force?’

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  3. Khorboth says:

    shut down Boston

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  4. New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; Atlanta; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; San Francisco; and Philadelphia. As soon as the company realized the Boston problem, it said, law enforcement officials were told of their locations in all 10 cities. James Joyner, “It’s not clear what crime has been committed. Did the company call in a bomb threat?” Steve Safran, “Police described the light-up signs as having construction “consistent with an explosive device” which, if you count a circuit board,

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  5. then again, they achieved their goal: publicity for their client. One wonders what the fallout will be for ‘Aqua Teen Hunger Force,’ a show of which I’d never heard. Will all the free publicity help? Or will this negative association kill the show?” –Outside the Beltway “Strangely, Turner stated that these viral ads have been in place in 10 major cities for between two and three weeks, which leaves one to wonder why no one noticed the strange, pixelated cartoon characters flipping the bird until just this afternoon,

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  6. Outside the Beltway» Aqua Teen Hunger Force Promotion Terrorizes Boston Dean’s World» Don’t Blame Us: We Pass Resolutions! Photomatt» New Servers Unclaimed Territory» Various items Homeland Stupidity» Super Bowl prepares for terrorist threat BuzzMachine» Steve Forbes’ Iraqi solution

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  7. A marketing ploy for the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” cartoon was mistaken for a terrorist plot and shut down Boston for several hours. [IMG Aqua Teen Hunger Force Screencap] [IMG Boston Aqua Teen Hunger Force Terror Plot – Members of the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority police, the Masachusetts State Police and the Boston Bomb Squad respond to a suspicious package found near the Sullivan Square subway station in

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  8. Maggie says:

    ….”hiding a bomb in an “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” container might be an effective bit of tradecraft.”

    Thank you, Turner Broadcasting, for giving them that idea. Now terrorists have a new idea and ordinary citizens seeing a real bomb may now think it is just a marketing ploy and NOT REPORT IT.

    Turner should send people out to collect any remaining “hoax” bombs from the other cities NOW and they should pay all costs incurred by the city of Boston in this TERRORISM and pay a steep fine for each device.

    Yes, terrorism. Check the definition. Damn their intent. I just know the results of their actions.

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  9. anjin-san says:

    >On the terrorism/homeland security front, if some marketing firm can plant blinking devices all around the infrastructure of our major cities, mostly without detection, certainly well-funded terrorist groups could do the same with more lethal variants.

    Gosh James, are you suggesting that 5+ years out from 9/11 there are vast, obvious gaps in homeland security? I would think that we are all as safe as milk since Bush has the terrorists pinned down in Iraq… Would hope so considering the half a trillion dollars he has spent there.

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  10. You know? They probably should have put more thought into this. But really… I think this is a bit of an overreaction on the part of the city of Boston. They’ll never be convicted of anything. Clearly, there was no intent to launch a hoax. And clearly, there was no intent to incite anything.

    Cartoon Network and Adult Swim do some pretty odd things. Obviously, this did cause problems. I would suggest, however, that the “disorderly conduct” comes from the media who blew this completely out of proportion, and the police, who could have gotten the real story out much sooner than they did.

    In any case, to be convicted of a crime, there clearly has to be intent. I think they’ll have trouble proving that.

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  11. The Knuckleheads of the Day award…

    Today’s winners are Interference Inc and Time Warner….

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  12. Bandit says:

    As a resident of Boston this is further proof that Tom Menino is an effing idiot. The city is shutdown because of sightings of lite brites? Sorry – they didn’t act to protect safety – they reacted because they’re incompetent. They’re completely unprepared for a real attack so they overreact to a media stunt..

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  13. Tim C says:

    The real concern ought to be that these packages seem to have been in place for two to three weeks according to the story in the Boston Globe.

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  14. Anderson says:

    It’s not clear what crime has been committed.

    That is SUCH pre-9/11 thinking … ;)

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  15. Andy says:

    The next time that the terrorists plant bright, flashing bombs that look like cartoon characters and have a 4 week detonation timer, the government will know exactly what to do!

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  16. SgtFluffy says:

    “It’s not clear what crime has been committed.”

    Asshatery?

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  17. legion says:

    Tim C,
    Not to mention that:

    It said the devices have been in place for two to three weeks in 10 cities: Boston, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, Ore., Austin, Texas, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

    Which is further evidence that Boston a)overreacted a bit in shutting the city down and b) is totally embarrassing itself by going after the folks who did it. Seriously – Arrests? For scaring the cops? when 10 other cities didn’t freak out? I dare them to prosecute that in either a court of law or the court of public opinion…

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  18. Kent G. Budge says:

    Turner Broadcasting’s publicity stunt, like most publicity stunts, was stupid and juvenile.

    The city of Boston’s reaction was stupid and juvenile.

    Stupid, juvenile behavior is a human norm. I’m sorry to say I’ve indulged in it myself on occasion. So has everyone else I have ever known. It’s still stupid and juvenile.

    The one hopeful observation — though I doubt he intended it that way — comes from anjin-san. The fact that we haven’t had a serious terrorist incident in a while, in spite of homeland security that is as poor as this incident demonstrates, is pretty good evidence that, yes, we really do have the terrorists pinned down elsewhere. Don’t know if I really believe that, but it’s at least plausible.

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  19. Chris says:

    To be honest, the reaction was moronic. While I agree that sticking these things near bridges was stupid, anyone with half a brain would’ve seen they’re cartoon characters. Did the 9/11 hijackers paint characters from Aqua Teen Hunger Force on the planes?

    By the way, I’m in from New York. If anything, we should get freaked out over stuff like this. They’re in our city too, and we had no reaction at all (because we’re not idiots). A couple weeks ago a gas-like smell permeated throughout the region. We realized it for what it was: a gas leak somewhere, not terrorist activity. We went to work and let the authorities deal with it.

    If people across the nation would take a lesson from us and stay cool/realize not everything warrants a crazy-ass response, the nation would be a better place.

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  20. Dave says:

    Good thing they weren’t promoting Metalocalypse!

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  21. Billy says:

    Seriously, could the authorities have engaged in a more knee-jerk display of overreaction, and then found a scapegoat for their own stupidity any faster?

    If intent is immaterial re: terrorism, then there are a slew of government officials far more guilty of the crime than are any of the marketing geniuses behind this one.

    This may be the most defining moment since 9/11 about who you are. If you think this was a perfectly reasonable reaction to a credible threat, you belong to the last (and by “last” I mean “obsolete”) generation. If, however, you think that this is the dumbest thing the authorities could have possibly done, you’re part of this generation, and not only that, but you’re not a total moron (negative implication intended)

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  22. Brandon says:

    I think this will be a positive boost for Adult Swim, not so sure for Turner as a whole. If anything the media should be ridiculing Boston for not seeing what these “devices” truly were – blinking lights. Can’t the city of Boston differentiate between a bomb and a lite brite?

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  23. legion says:

    Brandon,
    What little non-blog coverage I’ve seen today has been more on the ridiculing side… and ridicule is deserved. Let’s think for a second: if I was a terrorist, making bombs to plant on bridges & buildings around a major metro area, WOULD I PUT BRIGHT, BLINKING LIGHTS ALL OVER THEM? Apparently, Boston PD gets its Homeland Security training from watching “24” reruns…

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  24. Josh says:

    what is wrong with you people? have you all totally lost your minds? it’s a little thing called marketing. are we really living in a world where a whole city can be shut down by a crappy-drawn cartoon character. is Boston going to take down billboards and all other forms of advertising? the terrorists could have really big bombs behind billboards. the only thing cartoon network should apologize for is the lack of common sense among the American people. come on people, use your heads!

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  25. Caleb says:

    I keep hearing that this is not a good marketing style since 9/11. How is it not good because of a totaly different and hostile act? This was in no way a terrorist action and the fact that they stayed in place for 4 weeks and no one said anything shows the fact that boston has no idea what is going on in their own city. Menino is and always has been a hack. I am sad to say I’m from Massachusetts.

    Once the cops found one and studied it, why did they investigate instead of react with fear? No one knew what the image was? I think that they started to detonate them and realized that they spent the money and time for nothing and decided to make a big hissy over it to get some one else to pay for the expenses.

    This is once again, a figment of scared minds and the result of a media outlet that does not think and research before they spout their retoric. They even called them moonines on the news… Get your facts right.

    Now they really are numba 1 in the hood…G

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  26. Jason says:

    Boston: proof that caffeine and poor judgment don’t mix.

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  27. Michael says:

    “It’s not clear what crime has been committed.”

    Asshatery?

    Not a crime in 49 states.

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  28. soda says:

    Dum, Dumb, Dun,

    apparently some places reported or called it a “hoax”, not realizing the definition of the word. if it was claimed to be a bomb, then it would be a hoax. it was not, it was not a hoax. duh…
    it won’t hurt the show because most people that watch it are smarter than the so called “authorities”. bad mistake. ATHF people shouldn’t have dipped into the crap waters of mass marketing

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  29. Zach says:

    HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

    Too damn funny. Those of you freaking out about this need to calm down. Those of you who think my comment is needless, think for a second. This whole situation is needless. You want a real comment from me? See my journal.

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  30. Mike says:

    After all the blogging, and message boards I’ve read, I have NOT seen this brought up.

    The terrorists have actually seceded. We (the american public) are so scared out of our wits that we have people in authoritative positions over reacting to something as simple as a blinking cartoon character.

    I laugh every time I hear about this being brought up.

    This is what should be done.

    1. Leave the guys that placed the devices alone (they were doing their job.)

    2. Make Turner pay back the money spent for the “over-reaction”

    3. Drag Boston’s mayor and other authoritative figures out in the street and pelt them with moon rocks. Or otherwise treat them like the god damned idiots they are.

    “Can you feel this Boston…..Or shall I turn it up for you.?

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  31. Toki Wartooth says:

    could you imagine what it’d be like if Arnold Schwartenegger was in that situation?

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  32. funny says:

    This completely outlines and underscores the sheer utter incompetence of Homeland Security. They stood down on 9-11 and let it happen (when they knew well ahead there would be an attack) They refused Aid to an Ailing New Orleans as hurricane Katrina battered the city. But wait light up cartoon characters?? They are goin DOWN. While out tax dollers are being WASTED by foolishnedd like this, the war in Iraq is becoming total chaos.

    Our IMBECILIC and corporate puppet president George Bush still cant convienently find Bin Laden. All we hear from the White House is a typical fear and smear. We are a country afraid of its own shadow and this incident proves it. We went from America home of the brave, to america home of the cowardly. We send our youth to die in a false war, while the rich 1% rip us off.

    Whats funny is they didnt arrest the CEO of mighty Turner Broadcasting company (who by the way also owns CNN) They took down the little guys who probably make minimum wage. Our government doesnt need warrents to arrest you. This is a textbook example of abridging free speech.

    How many freedoms will our cowardly citizens give up before they realise our government is the enemy?

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  33. KBC says:

    Boston officials need to quit pointing their finger and realize that it is their own fault this happened. They should just apologize to their citizens for overreacting so soon. I really can’t imagine why anyone would mistake this for a bomb. When terrorists hide (i said “hide”) bombs they are well hidden and don’t have lights, bells or whistles to let everyone know where they are at. The fact that this reaction happened only in Boston is even more evidence that it was that city alone that lacked the common sense to distinguish bomb from cartoon character lit up on board.

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