Now that the dust has settled around last week’s marketing stunt that went horribly awry for Boston-area commuters, what lessons can marketers take away?
In his excellent post on the fiasco, Todd Defren declined to address a key question: Was this stunt even an effective marketing campaign? (A question that naturally leads to another: Was it worth all the trouble?)
If Todd doesn’t mind, I’d like to grab that baton.
First, was the stunt a good idea? Todd mentions the “any press is good press” angle, which I think implies that this campaign was getting any press at all before the Boston ruckus. Media coverage from the other cities indicates that some people did notice the odd little light displays, but there were certainly no terrorism scares in these cities, and definitely no national media attention.
As a word of mouth campaign, I think this project was ill-conceived, even without the bomb scare implications. Without an accompanying billboard or print media ad campaign, the stunt’s success relied entirely on the average American’s ability to recognize a character from an obscure cable cartoon, “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.” Without the attention on the terror scare, it is safe to say that this campaign would most definitely not have resulted in a week’s worth of free national media coverage and endless blog chatter about the program.
The terrorism scare then, while a nightmare for Boston commuters, turned out to be something of a boon for Turner Broadcasting. If nothing else, there are far more people today who have heard of “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” than there were a week ago (count me as one of them). And while the two young men hired to place the devices aren’t doing the company any PR favors with their silly grandstanding, they certainly are keeping the event—and the cartoon—in the news.
The stunt has also inspired an online viral response, exactly the kind of word-of-mouth companies hope for when they go to the trouble to start their own viral campaigns (usually with limited success, as the Wal-Mart fake blog and other similar projects have proved). Boston website Bostonist links to a song parody of the incident, a short video and a “whack-a-mole” style online game.
No one would argue that anyone behind this campaign intended to cause a massive panic and shut down the entire transportation infrastructure of a metropolitan area when this idea was conceived. The scare and the resulting viral buzz are entirely accidental, as all the best viral campaigns are. That is why companies attempting to create their own will almost always fail.
One must wonder then whether there is a marketing exec somewhere turning secret cartwheels over this gaffe, even as they issue public apologies—and if other companies will make bungled attempts to imitate this sort of accidental publicity with stunts of their own.