Madison Avenue goes guerilla

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Filed under: Co-option (If You Can't Beat 'Em...), Hype, Legal Issues

News Analysis: Boston Bomb Hoax Scares Up More Guerrilla Business
May 14, 2007
By Becky Ebenkamp

A $2 million fine and Senate bill can’t cage envelope-pushing efforts.

mooninites.jpg“Now more than ever!” is the rallying cry for guerrilla marketers three months after a misunderstanding over a stealthy street stunt promoting Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force brewed a Boston bomb scare.

Some marketing agencies say the headline-making hoax has actually increased business despite a bill making its way through the Senate that would impose harsher punishments should such a hoax happen again.

Early reports after the Jan. 31 hysteria had many speculating marketers would steer clear of this big-bang/small bucks school of buzz building. After all, Cartoon Network gm/evp Jim Samples resigned; parent company Turner Broadcasting and guerrilla agency Interference agreed to pay $1 million in compensation to Massachusetts and another $1 million to support federal homeland security.

“The smarter clients I spoke to [realized] that a $2 million fine equals $120 million in publicity,” said Peter Shankman, president of New York-based pr/marketing agency The Geek Factory. “They said, ‘Just get the damn permits first!'”

Drew Neisser, president of the New York integrated marketing agency Renegade Marketing, said the incident “really heightened awareness of nontraditional marketing. The irony was people were saying, ‘I want that!'”

Sam Ewen, CEO of Interference, the marketing agency blamed for the Boston blowout, said he didn’t lose any clients over the attention. “There hasn’t been a shying away from the tactic as a whole.”

Still, guerrilla marketing’s raised profile has also gotten some unwanted attention from the Senate.

Under the proposed Terrorist Hoax Improvements Act of 2007, the government will be able to sue parties involved in stunts mistaken for terrorism. Introduced in the Senate, the bill would add new clauses to the federal criminal code that would make it less appealing to waste government resources. The amendments include extending the prohibitions on spreading false information, increasing maximum prison terms and letting local and federal governments sue to reimburse expenses.

“It is legislative overkill,” said Neisser. “[If passed], it would change nothing. No one is sitting down and saying, ‘let’s scare the pants off people and get the police after our client.’ It’s not an objective and if it was, it isn’t now.”

One element that has changed is marketers are more likely to run controversial campaigns by their lawyers first. “Before you could get approval on a pretty junior level,” Neisser said.

When pitching these campaigns to their superiors, “people are less likely to call it guerrilla,” noted Ewen. [They refer to it as] ambient, experiential, grassroots marketing. There’s been a shift in how people want to present it to themselves and to higher-ups.”

© 2007 Nielsen Business Media, Inc.