Artists face jail after cartoon stunt sparks US terror alert
Two artists from Boston found themselves in court yesterday facing the possibility of a prison sentence after signs they had placed around the city to advertise a late-night animated show triggered a traffic-snarling terror scare.
Boston police closed major commuter arteries, underground stations and even a section of the Charles River on Wednesday after receiving phone calls from concerned citizens who had spotted the devices and apparently mistaken them for bombs. The scare crippled parts of downtown Boston.
The Cartoon Network, owned by Turner Broadcasting, later acknowledged that it had contracted with a publicity company, Interference Inc, to distribute the foot-tall, magnetic signs around Boston and nine other cities, including New York and Chicago.
The two accused men, Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, were arrested on Wednesday evening and released on $2,500 (£1270) bail.
Appearing in court in Charlestown, Massachusetts, outside Boston, both pleaded not guilty to charges of planting hoax devices and disorderly conduct. There is nothing unusual about "guerrilla advertising", where companies eschew traditional practices and place promotional wares in unusual and eye-catching settings in the hope of attracting wider public attention.
In Boston, it worked spectacularly. No Bostonian can now be unaware of the show, an adult cartoon called Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which features a talking meatball and milkshake. They, and most of the rest of America, also now know that a film version is coming out soon.
But this was an advertising stunt gone wrong for two reasons: firstly, the signs which traced out figures from the cartoon, called Mooninites, in flashing lights looked like circuit boards, which can also be used in bomb-making, and had visible batteries and protruding wires; and secondly, the men put them in obviously sensitive places, like the supports of road flyovers and near hospitals and underground stations.
Also, no one at Interference Inc or the Cartoon Network seemed to have taken into consideration the paranoia that still exists after the terror attacks of 11 September 2001. The public is encouraged to report suspicious packages, and these flashing figures - one appears to be a angry-looking gnome making an obscene gesture - apparently qualified.
It was only after receiving word from Turner Broadcasting late on Wednesday night about the true nature of the signs that officials declared them harmless. Almost 40 of them had been put up.
"We apologise to the citizens of Boston that part of a marketing campaign was mistaken for a public danger," the chairman of Turner Broadcasting, Phil Kent, said. "We appreciate the gravity of this situation and, like any responsible company would, are putting all necessary resources toward understanding the facts surrounding it as quickly as possible."
But the city made it clear that it is the company as well as Interference Inc that should bear final responsibility for Wednesday's mess. Prosecutors may even explore the possibility that a deliberate attempt was made to create a terror hoax precisely to ensure maximum exposure for the television programme.
"It is outrageous, in a post-9/11 world, that a company would use this type of marketing scheme," the mayor of Boston, Thomas Menino, said. "I am prepared to take any and all legal action against Turner Broadcasting and its affiliates for any and all expenses incurred."
Officials said that the police deployment alone to respond to the devices had cost up to a million dollars.
Before appearing in court, Mr Berdovsky confessed to feeling "freaked out" by the furore and pointed out that the signs had been up for three weeks. "It's pretty commonsensical to look at them and say this is a piece of art and installation," he said.