MiC Rant: Levine says Turner stunt proves it’s not true that all publicity is good publicity

Guerilla marketing can be superbly effective. But PR vet Michael Levine fumes that what operatives of Turner Broadcasting did this week is bound to go down as the worst PR blunder since WKRP in Cincinnati dropped a gaggle of hapless turkeys out of a plane for a Thanksgiving promotion, assuming they could fly. They didn't. And neither did an inexplicably clumsy effort that's already resulted in arrests in Boston.

To spark buzz for its upcoming cartoon show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, guerilla marketers acting on behalf of Atlanta, Ga.-based Turner Broadcasting placed blinking, sinister-looking boxes in prominent public places in 10 major US cities. The idea was to draw attention by projecting images on public walls, bridges and other spots. Instead, on Wednesday, the bomb-like devices ended up scaring the bejeebers out of commuters in Boston, stalling road and river traffic and putting law enforcement bodies on red alert – after which two employees of NYC-based guerilla marketer Interference Inc. were arrested.

‘Boston was literally locked down and it’ll probably end up costing the city a million bucks – who’s going to pay for that?’ Audibly fuming, Michael Levine asks MiC the rhetorical question in a phone call from his Los Angeles headquarters. As both a PR vet who’s worked with major corporations including Nike and Pizza Hut – not to mention Barbra Streisand and Michael Jackson – and the author of the classic Guerilla PR and the more recent Broken Windows – Levine definitely knows the difference between good and bad publicity. And he calls the fiasco ‘the single stupidest PR stunt I’ve ever witnessed.

‘To think it got approved by senior executives of Turner Broadcasting is literally unbelievable. How would you, in a post-9/11 world, take this kind of risk? I’ve never seen anything stupider in my life.’

So severe were fears in the Boston area, where police bomb squads ultimately found 38 devices, that Interstate 93 was shut down along with two bridges and two transit lines. The Charles River was closed to boat traffic by the US Coast Guard, and Tufts New England Medical Center was evacuated after one of the devices was found in a basement parking garage.

How, in Levine’s opinion, could professionals as savvy as those at Turner usually are have gotten this promo so wrong? ‘It’s so stupid that I have no explanation,’ he answers. ‘It simply defies logic.’