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  Boston Guerrilla Marketing Scare’s Chilling Effects on ARG Design  
 
 
Posted 2007-02-03 by Tony Walsh
 
 
     
 
Boston Guerrilla Marketing Scare’s Chilling Effects on ARG Design
Angry Mooninite flips the bird at you.
A publicity stunt misinterpreted as a terrorist attack against the city of Boston could limit the ability of grassroots marketers, artists, and alternate-reality game developers to engage the public, if the city's Mayor gets his way. Boston was the target of a stealth marketing campaign last month that managed to spark fears of a terrorist attack this week. Illuminated mini-billboards featuring a pixellated cartoon character from the TV show Aqua Teen Hunger Force were reportedly placed in Boston, New York, Los Angeles, and other major U.S. cities. Boston's police force shut down parts of the city while the billboards (thought to be explosive devices) were sought out and destroyed. Authorities are describing the billboards as "hoax" devices (many bloggers have already pointed out the devices were never intended to masquerade as explosives), which apparently entitles law enforcers to press felony charges against the perpetrators.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, obviously steaming from having wasted vast city resources on a publicity stunt, has reportedly called for a ban on all guerrilla marketing campaigns due to concerns about public safety. I am reminded of how authorities overreacted to a zombie dance party last summer, or how the Revenna, Ohio police sent the bomb squad to investigate giant Super Mario Bros question blocks placed around town. Artist Space Invader affixes game-inspired ceramic pixel art to walls around the world, but he'd better stay away from Boston, lest authorities in that city imagine a real space invasion is taking place.

I've worked on three commercial alternate-reality games (and one grassroots game) over the last few years. These games often involve engaging the public in their own cities through stealth or explicit communications or staged events. I can only speak for myself and those I've worked with, but public safety is always a major consideration in these efforts. So too is the potential for overreaction or misinterpretation by local authorities. I don't know if Turner Broadcasting put much thought into their campaign, but it stands to reason that in Boston, at least, the plan was not cleared with the authorities. Probably because the legality of the plan was questionable, and probably because Turner never thought the plan could go so horribly awry. At this point, it doesn't matter how much thought went into the campaign, because Boston's Mayor is now calling for a ban on all guerrilla marketing efforts. I doubt such a ban could be reasonably enforced, but it's really the thought that counts. What would happen if other city Mayors jumped on Menino's bandwagon?

I am a proponent of making the world a more playful place, but it seems to be too much to expect a world fixated on terrorism to be accepting of playful activities and situations carried out in public spaces. I don't mean this melodramatically, but is it possible to have a War on Terror without having a War on Play? Does "The New Normal" preclude "The Unexpected?" For the sake of art and alternate-reality games, at least, I hope not. If any good can come out of the Boston incident, it's that ARG designers will more carefully consider how the public is engaged, perhaps involving local people--and local authorities--earlier on in the development process, even at the expense of breaking the "this is not a game" mantra some hold dear.
 
     
 
   
 
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Comment posted by Brace Coral
February 3, 2007 @ 11:29 am
     
 
Ok this is weh off topic - but the first thing that popped into my head when I saw the pic for the article: Light Bright!

Yeh I'm old... I miss my light bright...

*sighs*
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
February 4, 2007 @ 3:25 pm
     
 
Oh, stop it Tony. The self-righteousness and chest-beating here is really unseemly. If you put electric circuit boards underneath a highway underpass in some unexpectated way, you have to be willing to take the consequences. Why are people who react perfectly normally to this type of hoaxing -- and it is hoaxing, even if unintended hoaxing -- subject to humiliation by elitist bloggers?

Here's what the local official said:

""This stunt has caused considerable disruption and anxiety in our community. I understand that Turner Broadcasting has purported to apologize for this. I intend nonetheless to consult with the attorney general and other advisors about what recourse we may have," Patrick said."

It CAUSED disruption. It WAS disruptive. Therefore it was WRONG. Trying to prettify it after the fact and grump and gripe about "the war on play" is to imply that any and every asshole gets to flood the public commons with whatever "playful disruptive" bullshit he likes. Huh? Why does that fly???

You know, if the people at Logan Airport near Boston had been a tiny bit more on the ball and managed to confiscated some boxcutters from a group of foreign-born folks educated at pilot schools, 9/11 would have been aborted.

So if they got a little over-eager in picking up some suspicious electronic devices that didn't make sense immediately, hey, I don't mind.

What's so AWFUL about your story is the way in which elitist, pranksterist, nihilist game-players HIJACK the public space. It's a public space FOR A REASON -- it belongs to the PUBLIC, which is a diverse thing, not just their playground. My God, is that so hard to understand?!
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Rusty Ramone
February 5, 2007 @ 1:51 pm
     
 
The devices did not cause the distruption, the reaction of the authorities caused the distruption. And the panic. Most sensible people can see clearly that these are not some ominous electric circuit boards with scary wires that the city's press are making them out to be. They're plainly lit-up pixel signs out in the open for a couple of weeks until some high-strung beware-of-foreigners-with-boxcutters nut freaked out and yelled "bomb!" Given the ads' high-traffic locations, thousands of other people had seen them and didn't feel threatened. Someone screwed up, the authorities embarrassed themselves nationally, and now their trying to save face by saying a threat existed where we all know there wasn't.

But to Tony's point, Turner should have at least had some sort of notice on the signs to the effect of "Property of Turner. For information, call..." so things could've been cleared up right away.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
February 5, 2007 @ 4:30 pm
     
 
I disagree. The devices and the intent indeed sound disruptive. It's the attitude behind it that is particularly on display, "I get to use the world for my sandbox, and my real-life role-play is more important than anything, even perceptions that might damage public safety."

I'm also not getting why we are nutters for being concerned about foreigners who get on airplanes with box-cutters. It's just common sense.

I don't see why we have to be bullied by the politically-correct squad on this one.

BTW, did these "plainly lit-up signs" have a character flipping everyone the bird? That tells us a lot about the mischievous intent of these pranksters as well.

Seriously, I don't get why "guerilla marketing" has to get a blessing. It doesn't. It's disruptive, and people were genuinely frightened and angry, and that's more than fine. They have a right to be, given the callous attitude shown to them from the get-go.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Rusty Ramone
February 5, 2007 @ 5:22 pm
     
 
I absolutely agree that flipping the bird was a poor choice of message to send out. But that's not what the issue is. Pictures of a boxy character giving the finger did not cause what happened. Sure, someone seems to have been genuinely frightened, but what about the tens of thousands of people who saw these ads for the prevous two weeks in ten major cities and didn't panic? Sounds to me like the majority were okay with them.

Public space should be usable in publicly-acceptable ways. So long as guerilla marketers stay within the rules of law and public decency, they should not be banned. Nor should they be banned on a whole because of the actions of one poorly-executed campaign.

Taking boxcutters away from a hand-to-hand-combat-trained team determined to hijack a plane is as effective as taking a drivers license away from a carjacker. Whether they foreigners makes no difference.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
February 5, 2007 @ 8:47 pm
     
 
Um, indeed. And what is your evidence for deciding that the crudeness wasn't part of it? And how do you know that there were tens of thousands of people "ok" with it? Maybe they didn't even notice it. I don't think you have the evidence for that. And why do these guerilla marketers think they get to decide what is publicly acceptable? Obviously it wasn't!

Since this isn't a blog about terrorism, but about games, I think I'm done discussing this.
 
     
 
     
   
 
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
February 25, 2007 @ 7:18 pm
     
 
I think it's interesting that Boston has reacted this way once again to another marketing ploy involving a RL treasure hunt -- and I would likely take their side on this one. Now ABC is covering what they rightly call "guerilla marketing" for the even that you all are calling "art" and feeling "entitled" to perpetrate on the unsuspecting public.

I like what this official has said:

"It is intolerable that companies should exploit city resources at the expense of public safety and even historic property for a cheap promotion," Feeney said in a statement. "As a city government, we must act to prevent the negative impact of these marketing activities."

http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=2899057&page=1&CMP=OTC-RSSFeeds0312

while this might seem to some like a parody a la Nation States, it's serious. I don't like the idea that any company, even a cool upbeat Web 2.0 whatever company, gets to exploit the public commons to pursue its own ends, scaring people and causing them to feel as if their safety is endangered.
 
     
 
     
   
 
 
     
 
     
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