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A PR Stunt Goes Bad

In June 2007, we wrote about marketing firm Interference, which designed a PR campaign that caused a terrorism scare in Boston.
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The Problem Most marketing campaigns are not mistaken for terrorist attacks. But this one, like many of the campaigns run by Sam Ewen's New York City -- based firm, Interference, was different. In January 2007, Interference launched a campaign for Aqua Teen Hunger Force, a Cartoon Network show starring fast-food characters with names such as Frylock and Meatwad. The campaign featured metal sheets covered with colored LEDs in the shape of characters from the show. The figures were hung in 10 U.S. cities, with at least 20 scattered around Boston. About two weeks into the campaign, a Boston subway worker noticed one of the figures, with wires sticking out of it, on a highway on-ramp. The police were called in, and a bomb squad detonated the prop. Highways, bridges, and transit stations were shut down, and the media pounced on Interference's New York City offices. By the end of the week, Ewen had issued an apology and agreed to pay an undisclosed portion of the $2 million settlement negotiated between Turner Broadcasting (the Cartoon Network's parent company) and the city of Boston. The immediate crisis was over, but Ewen wondered if it was time to scale back his firm's edgy ambitions.

What The Experts Said Michael Sitrick, founder and chairman of Sitrick and Co. in Los Angeles, advised Ewen to do media interviews outlining how Interference would ensure this would never happen again. Katie Paine, CEO of Berlin, New Hampshire -- based KDPaine & Partners, said mainstream companies might now be leery of hiring the firm. But Donna Sokolsky, co-founder of Spark PR in San Francisco, disagreed, saying, "It was a really innovative campaign. That's what people will remember."

What's Happened Since Interference didn't lose any customers. Today, Ewen and his 14 employees are extremely careful and try to imagine every possible scenario when designing a public campaign. They also make sure to contact city governments to get their blessing and address any concerns. The company is on track to finish 30 to 40 projects this year.

What's Next Ewen plans to target retail chains and automakers. And he hardly seems afraid to be creative. In a recent campaign to promote BBC America's Robin Hood, for example, Interference sent out people dressed in cloaks to do good deeds such as opening doors, paying for breakfasts, and carrying groceries throughout Philadelphia. To the best of his knowledge, no one called the cops to complain about the merry men.

Last updated: Aug 1, 2008




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