VIRAL MARKETING

Case Study: When a Guerrilla Marketing Campaign Backfires

Sam Ewen sure got people talking. The police called his agency's marketing campaign "unconscionable." Was it time to get less edgy?.
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Sam Ewen found out about the Boston bomb scare, which he'd apparently created, while riding Amtrak back to New York City from a meeting in Washington, D.C. The office of his small marketing agency, Interference, called to tell him that the company switchboard was lit up with calls. By then CNN and other news networks were in live coverage of "more than a dozen suspicious devices described as 'blinking electronic circuit boards" found under an interstate highway and in other Boston sites. A bomb squad had detonated one of Ewen's mysterious props, and police were looking for answers.

Ewen knew immediately that the 12-person guerrilla marketing agency he'd been building since 2001 was facing the crisis of its life, but he didn't really have time to think about it.

Boston's reaction "was completely unexpected," Ewen says. "This wasn't intended to be controversial, it was intended to be under the radar. So from the moment we heard, we just started acting, and I don't think I thought about [the long-term impact on] my company for 24, maybe 36 hours."

Maybe he should have been prepared for such an overreaction in the post-9/11 world. But the campaign had seemed harmless: Build light-up versions of cartoon characters from a Cartoon Network show and hang them around 10 U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. The show, called Aqua Teen Hunger Force, features the misadventures of anthropomorphized fast food items named Master Shake, Frylock, and Meatwad, and runs on the network's Adult Swim segment. The campaign featured the Mooninites, two-dimensional alien villains that resemble late-1970s video game characters. The goal was to have fans of the show do things like snap digital photos of the devices, known as "throwies," and e-mail the images. It was a stealth campaign, not expected to generate much in the way of headlines, and for two weeks in January, it didn't.

Then, on the morning of Wednesday, January 31, a subway worker at Boston's Sullivan Square station noticed one of the throwies on a support for I-93. The police were called. Because of several factors--it had wires sticking out of it, it was found on a highway on-ramp--it was treated as a potential bomb. Boston-area police shut down highways, bridges, and transit stations before recognizing in midafternoon that they were in fact dealing with cartoon characters.

When officials found out, it got worse. Boston police commissioner Edward Davis called the marketing campaign "unconscionable." Congressman Edward Markey said, "Whoever thought this up needs to find another job."

By Saturday morning, when a reporter ambushed Ewen and his five-year-old daughter in the lobby of his apartment building, he started to wonder. "Is this worth it?" he thought, as he sneaked his daughter past the press. "Can I stay in this business?"

Ewen's campaigns had run into issues before. Public surprise, after all, is part of what makes guerrilla marketing work. (Ewen won't disclose his billings but says his biggest campaigns cost between $200,000 and $500,000.) There hadn't been a problem when he'd had a 30-foot shark fin pulled up and down the Hudson River to promote Discovery Channel's Shark Week (he had cleared it with the Coast Guard), but once he'd had to hire 20 people to remove stickers promoting a financial information provider from lampposts, parking meters, and other things in a city after being threatened with $225,000 in fines. There had never been anything that might wreck his business.

At first all he could do was react. Sitting on that Amtrak train, he contacted the lawyer who handled his contracts. That lawyer suggested another attorney at his firm, Schenck, Price, Smith & King, a partner named Michael K. Mullen. Mullen was a litigator who tended to handle the firm's unusual cases and had a personal perspective on corporate emergencies--Mullen's father was an executive at Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) and was involved in the company's response to the Tylenol tampering in 1982, which has become a textbook example of the right way for companies to handle an unexpected crisis.

Mullen says what happened to Ewen was a microcosm of what happened to J&J--a situation beyond a company's control occurs, with no rule book, its future linked to its response. Mullen advised Ewen not to talk to the press and to focus on supporting his client, Cartoon Network's parent, Turner Broadcasting. That meant he needed to address the concerns of local, state, and federal officials fully while simultaneously pulling the plug on a planned second phase of the campaign. Turner said it would handle press, though the media didn't stop hounding Ewen, who felt he shouldn't be part of the story.

To lower his profile, Ewen took down Interference's website the first night. But his phone was ringing every two or three minutes, almost all of the calls from reporters. Most of his e-mail was also from the media. Ewen says he didn't get an unbroken block of bona fide spam until Sunday.

He came to work Thursday to find his office building's entrance ringed by camera crews. They didn't know what he looked like, however, and he went in by a back entrance. The two men Ewen had hired to hang the props around Boston had been arrested, and he was involved in trying to get them less onerous bail--Boston wanted to set bail at $250,000. It didn't help that the men held an impromptu press conference in which they made comments about hairstyles of the '70s, appearing to mock the entire situation.

Early Friday morning, Ewen finally felt he had the time to post an apology on Interference's website, written after Turner's initial statement had been released late Wednesday.

He also called together his staff, knowing they would have the same questions about Interference's future that he'd been asking himself. He told them Interference hadn't lost any clients. Some had even called to offer statements of support. He thought the agency would be okay. It would pay part of the $2 million settlement Turner agreed upon with the city of Boston. But that Friday, Jim Samples, the head of Cartoon Network, resigned over the scare. Was it time to rethink Interference's guerrilla approach?

The Decision

On Monday and Wednesday, Ewen had breakfast meetings with trusted friends from the marketing world. He told them he was considering shifting Interference's direction.

"I'm thinking of pulling way back," he told Maurice Bernstein after they'd settled in at a table at Balthazar, a SoHo eatery near the agency's offices. Bernstein, who runs Giant Step, another guerrilla marketing firm, had contacted Ewen and had told him things would be fine. Bernstein still felt this way, even though one of Giant Step's clients had called to cancel a campaign. He was even a little jealous of Ewen's sudden notoriety, though he knew Ewen was mortified by it.

He looked at Ewen and thought to himself that his friend looked like he'd been through something profound. "You know, there's plenty of business out there," Bernstein said. Ewen smiled, and began talking about some of the things he had been thinking about doing to ensure that future campaigns don't backfire.

Ewen knew by the end of that week that he didn't want to significantly change what Interference did. "Ninety-nine percent of our campaigns have a very, very low risk potential," he says. He enjoys the variety of ideas he can pursue in guerrilla marketing. He knew he didn't want his agency to repackage "safe" campaigns and give them slight twists for new clients.

He says Interference will still do riskier campaigns, but will take more time to weigh the dangers, "things we may not have considered in the past. Impact on traffic flow, effect on the environment, potentials from every viewpoint...just putting on the hats of other people and doing a lot of scenario testing," he says.

So far, he's turned down every client that's come looking for the scandalous sort of attention the Aqua Teen campaign got.

And he wants to make it easier for guerrilla marketers to talk to cities. "Cities make it easy to shut down a few blocks for a movie or to put up a huge billboard," but aren't interested in helping guerrilla marketers, he says. Right now, he adds, cities make it hard to get permits for marketing campaigns like his but often aren't consistent in what they enforce. He wants to see municipal licensing bureaus for guerrilla marketers, so that the cities know what's coming and get paid a fee to let the campaigns happen. "We could be a revenue stream for them," he notes.

As for his own revenue stream, Interference seems to be doing fine, for now. It has not lost a client or any employees. In fact, Ewen says, Interference has run about a dozen significant campaigns since the crisis week, including one for a very large financial institution. Still, Ewen knows that things are not over yet. "It'll take time to see whether our volume of new business is up or down," he says.

The Experts Weigh In

A chance to learn

Nobody could have conceived that Lite-Brite cartoon character was going to evoke a bomb scare. Once you take the emotion out of it, it was a really innovative campaign. That's what people will remember. Many of the brands we work with are asking us for guerrilla marketing campaigns, with an element of mystery, but they don't really understand what it means. Ewen could elevate this experience into something for the industry to learn from, counseling on what it means. He should be out there speaking about this to industry groups.

Donna Sokolsky
Co-Founder
Spark PR
San Francisco

Work to fix the perception

Anytime anyone does a search on the agency, the incident will pop up. The agency needs to demonstrate that what happened was an aberration. The quickest thing it could do is issue a press release announcing a series of actions designed to ensure what happened in Boston cannot happen in the future. It would have to be specific, and the company would really have to implement these actions. I would follow the press release with a series of media interviews. On the next assignment, the agency needs to make sure it follows the new game plan.

Michael Sitrick
Founder And Chairman
Sitrick and Co.
Los Angeles and New York

He's picked his market

Ewen's got a Dennis Rodman thing going there, where you either love him or you hate him. It could work very well for him, but if I'm a mainstream American company I'm probably going to be a little leery. He's doing the right things now; he's saying, "Here's my target audience and here's where I need to focus my time and energy." But he reached about a billion eyeballs with the bad moves, and he might be reaching 50,000 eyeballs with the good moves. I don't think it's going to be enough to change the general perception.

Katie Paine
CEO
KDPaine and Partners
Berlin, New Hampshire

Last updated: Jun 1, 2007




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