A quirky publicity campaign for a late-night cartoon show generated far more attention than was intended when a slew of blinking electronic signs prompted fears of terrorism and the deployment of bomb squads.
BOSTON (AP) — A quirky publicity campaign for a late-night cartoon show generated far more attention than was intended when a slew of blinking electronic signs prompted fears of terrorism and the deployment of bomb squads.
The 38 signs were part of a promotion for the Cartoon Network TV show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” a surreal series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball.
The 1-foot tall signs adorning bridges and other high-profile spots had hanging wires and batteries. Most depicted a boxy, cartoon character giving passersby the finger – a more obvious sight when darkness fell.
Turner Broadcasting, a division of Time Warner Inc. (TWX) and parent of Cartoon Network, apologized, but Boston authorities are still angry.
They arrested two men who put up the electronic promotions and vowed to hold Turner accountable for what Mayor Thomas Menino said was “corporate greed,” that led to at least $500,000 in police costs.
“It is outrageous, in a post 9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme,” Menino said. “I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred during the response to today’s incidents.”
Turner 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. As soon as the company realized the Boston problem, it said, law enforcement officials were told of their locations in all 10 cities.
“We apologize to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger,” said Phil Kent, Turner chairman.
Kent said the marketing company that placed the signs, Interference Inc., was ordered to remove them immediately. Messages seeking additional comment from the Atlanta-based Cartoon Network were left with several publicists.
Highways, bridges and a section of the Charles River were shut down Wednesday and bomb squads were sent in. Turner notified them that the devices were part of a promotion at around 5 p.m., Boston officials said.
“Everyone can play a part by holding Turner Broadcasting to account for today’s events,” Suffolk District Attorney Daniel Conley said. “Viewers, advertisers, license holders, can and should make clear to them this sort of behavior is reckless, irresponsible and illegal.”
“Commerce was disrupted, transportation routes were paralyzed, residents were stranded and relatives across the nation were in fear for their loved ones in the city of Boston,” Conley said.
Peter Berdovsky, 27, of Arlington, and Sean Stevens, 28, of Charlestown, were each charged Wednesday night with one count of placing a hoax device and one count of disorderly conduct. State Attorney General Martha Coakley said they were hired to place the devices. Both men were to be arraigned Thursday morning.
Those conducting the campaign should have known the devices could cause panic because they were placed in sensitive areas, Coakley said. Authorities are investigating whether Turner and any other companies should be criminally charged, she said.
“We’re not going to let this go without looking at the further roots of how this happened to cause the panic in this city,” Coakley said.
In Seattle and several suburbs, the removal of the signs was low-key. “We haven’t had any calls to 911 regarding this,” Seattle police spokesman Sean Whitcomb said Wednesday. Police in Philadelphia said they believe their city had 56 devices.
In New York City, local news broadcasts showed images of the devices being collected, and the New York Post reported that police confiscated 41 in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Interference had no immediate comment. A woman who answered the phone at the New York-based firm’s offices Wednesday afternoon said the firm’s CEO was out of town and would not be able to comment until Thursday.
Berdovsky, an artist, told The Boston Globe he was hired by Interference and said he was “a little kind of freaked out,” by the furor.
“I find it kind of ridiculous that they’re making these statements on TV that we must not be safe from terrorism, because they were up there for three weeks and no one noticed. It’s pretty commonsensical to look at them and say this is a piece of art and installation,” he told The Globe.
Berdovsky’s attorney described the incident as a “misunderstanding.”
“It’s very disturbing that what was just an employment for a struggling artist turned into some major misunderstanding,” Michael Rich told WLVI-TV.
A telephone voicemail box for Berdovsky was full Wednesday night. It could not immediately be determined if Stevens had legal counsel.
The first device to raise alarm in Boston was found by a transit worker at a subway and bus station underneath Interstate 93 on Wednesday morning, leading to the temporary shutdown of the station and the highway.
Later, police said four calls, all around 1 p.m., reported devices at the Boston University Bridge and the Longfellow Bridge, at a Boston street corner and at the Tufts-New England Medical Center.
Two devices, at the Longfellow Bridge and the medical center, however, turned out to be unrelated to the marketing campaign, Police Commissioner Edward Davis said.
The rash of calls around the same time is being investigated, Davis said. When asked if the calls were coordinated as part of the marketing campaign, he said: “There’s no indication it came from panicked residents.”
“Aqua Teen Hunger Force” is a cartoon with a cultish following that airs as part of a block of programs for adults on the Cartoon Network. A feature length film based on the show is slated for release March 23.