LAST WEEK, THERE was a successful terrorist attack in Boston. The perpetrators were Turner Broadcasting and the Cartoon Network, and they succeeded in hijacking something that every American holds dear: our attention. For a moment, Scooter and Baghdad and Mary Cheney’s pregnancy were shoved aside by a talking milk shake, fries, and meatball.
There’s nothing at all complicated about the desperate ideology that hatched this plan, dispersed 38 LED devices across the city, and splattered “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” across our cultural windshield. It’s an ideology fueled by a fear of irrelevancy. As jaded consumers grow resistant to conventional messages and techniques, marketing becomes terrorism by other means.
The theory is simple. If a commercial message is “ambient” — meaning, in the industry jargon, that it’s expressed through an unexpected medium in an unexpected place, say a device stuck on an overpass — it’s more likely to sneak past our mental screening devices and warning systems. In this way, the Cartoon Network is not alone; it’s actually just one of many thousands of marketing jihadists dreaming up new ways to get around our perceptual defenses, whether the message is painted on foreheads (“headvertising”) or calling out to us from an airplane tray table.
But what happened last week was more than a reaction to the hardening of consumer defenses. It was also a reaction to profound changes in the way media is consumed. Time and place are shifting, audience segments are turning into shards, and media people are starting to sound like the Joint Chiefs, speaking of “non-linearity” and “asynchronous” strategies.
So don’t blame the Cartoon Network for last week’s panic. Blame the remote control, the Internet, PlayStation, TiVo, Slingbox, and every other attention-fragmenting technology. After all, if viewers were watching TV the way they were meant to, curled up on the couch and doing just one thing at one time instead of indulging in promiscuous multitasking, there would have been no need for the Cartoon Network to go to all that trouble.
The leadership of the state and the city are hopping mad about all this. And of course Turner Broadcasting is apologizing all over itself.
As I follow the situation, though, what I’m thinking is how bummed out they must have been before the Boston mess. They must have been thinking: We have this brilliant idea to generate some buzz, we hire this cool guerilla marketing firm, they manage to tuck these goofy boxes into the warp and woof of 10 cities without incident — including hypervigilant New York, where there are subway posters that intone “If you see something, say something” — and then…nothing. Weeks of buzz-less silence.
In retrospect it might seem like the plan made no sense, with its outcome either invisibility or excoriation. Nonsense. I think that despite their protestations of shock, the Cartoon Network is secretly thrilled about what happened. This PR manna is absolutely glorious for the Cartoon Network and Adult Swim, the evening cartoon block that houses “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” Their younger audience is steeped in irony, marinated in irreverence, and proud of its outsider status, so to them “Aqua Teen” and its network are cooler than ever.
The coolness vibe even continued into the courtroom, where the two unlucky schmoes who were hired to plant the devices –and who are now staring down five-year sentences –are still playing along, taking the performance art into a new, equally irreverent Act 2. At their hearing, they mocked the district attorney, and at their news conference, they mocked the society they had threatened by only taking hair-related questions. This has turned out to be very much on-brand for Cartoon Network, though it’s not entirely clear whether the whole ploy was ingenious or just perversely lucky.
If I were advising Turner, my counsel would be to stay in front of the cameras. They were smart to take full responsibility for the stunt and to take out the checkbook to pay for the financial hit the city took on Wednesday. It’s a balancing act: With the instantly hot “artists” in court thumbing their noses at the Man — are the galleries already lining up to represent them? — the kid (Cartoon Network) maintains its defiant streak, while the corporate parent (Turner) assures the world there’s a level-headed grown-up at home.
The authorities have it all wrong when they pin the hoax label on what happened. Classic hoaxes seek to convince us that something fake is real, like the Piltdown man, Turk the chess-playing automaton, and the Hitler diaries. The Cartoon Network’s strategy wasn’t to create a bomb scare. The aim was to be hidden in plain sight and to speak in code to the target audience. It turns out there’s a fine line between being dangerously cool and just being dangerous — but don’t expect ad agencies to shy away from that line any time soon.
Real terrorists, the kind Boston obviously has on its mind more than New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta, want to destroy our way of life because they hate us, or so we’ve been told. Marketing terrorists, on the other hand, are desperate to have our way of life succeed, at a healthy but non-inflationary GNP. So if you were stuck in traffic last week, or momentarily frightened, you might take heart in the recognition that the incident wasn’t conceived and executed by those who hate us, but by those who love us too much.
Adam Hanft is CEO of the marketing/advertising firm Hanft Unlimited and blogs for Fast Company and the Huffington Post