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The City of Boston and the U.S. Feds freak out over a viral cartoon marketing displays

 
  

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Ticker
16:10 / 01.02.07
Enraged city and state officials yesterday readied a legal assault against those responsible for a guerrilla marketing campaign that dotted the city with small battery-powered light screens, setting off fears of terrorism and shutting down major roadways and subway lines for parts of the day.

Full article


So two local men hired by the ad agency have been arrested for putting the LED signs up and face up to 5 years in prison for hoax related devices that cause panic and hysteria. The same marketing approach was used in NYC and LA without incident. Boston wants Turner Broadcasting to pay up for the labor hours spent chasing down the bomb scare items.

I'm curious about the overlap of public art, fearmongering, genuine concern, and public responsibility. Off the cuff I do think it is reasonable to inform the city of a public display, however I'm not sure under Freedom of Speech if the City has the right to censor or deny the display.

CNN's coverage

CNN:Two held

Peter Berdovsky, 27, a freelance video artist from Arlington, Massachusetts, and Sean Stevens, 28, were facing charges of placing a hoax device in a way that results in panic, as well as one count of disorderly conduct, said Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley. The hoax charge is a felony, she said. Both men were arrested Wednesday evening.
 
 
Ticker
16:12 / 01.02.07
oh and...

Turner Broadcasting said the devices had been in place for two to three weeks in Boston; New York; Los Angeles, California; Chicago, Illinois; Atlanta, Georgia; Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; San Francisco, California; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
 
 
All Acting Regiment
17:08 / 01.02.07
This is absurd, isn't it? The crackdown is obviously happening because the forces are embarassed at their over-reaction...
 
 
MattShepherd: I WEDDED KALI!
17:31 / 01.02.07
The whole thing has an overwhelming Mr. Weatherbee vibe, doesn't it?

Archie and the gang's innocuous stunt to raise funds for the Riverdale prom resulted in the 'bee freaking out and calling the cops when he thought that Reggie and Big Moose were burglars! And now Archie and Jughead have to re-paint... the whole gym!

Boston has a (somewhat justifiable) tendency to panic, though. I remember the "dirty bomb" scare of 4-5 years ago...
 
 
Ticker
17:46 / 01.02.07
Well what do you think about the line between public art and notifying city officials?

I'm not quite sure what the lines are about signage/visual distractions near motorways.

Boston is pretty much a small town in terms of conservative reactions to artistic expression. New England can be a very repressed place and I'm surprised what didn't even make a blip in bigger cities caused a freakout in Boston. Gay Pride marches are still difficult there for example.
 
 
MattShepherd: I WEDDED KALI!
18:40 / 01.02.07
There's a definite argument to be had around what constitutes legitimate expression in public space. There's even an interesting parallel track between Aqua Teen Boston Bombthreat and the old trope about free speech -- yelling "fire!" in a crowded theatre.

If we take any public space as "the theatre," then using any public space in an alarmist way is not covered by "free speech." Question then becomes "were these devices really scary, or were the people who overreacted just dorks?" Which it's really hard to say without context and lotsa photos.

But I think there's a legitimate argument that if public art is going to cause panic, it shouldn't be done unannounced in public spaces.

Also an interesting thread in here about the framing of this as "public art" when its intention really wasn't as "art" but as "advertising". I suspect that's a scarily different kettle of fish, though.
 
 
ibis the being
19:20 / 01.02.07
Boston is pretty much a small town in terms of conservative reactions to artistic expression. New England can be a very repressed place and I'm surprised what didn't even make a blip in bigger cities caused a freakout in Boston.

Say what now? I just moved from Boston to Nebraska in November. If Boston is your idea of repressed, well gee willikers I just don't know....

Anyway, if you lived in Boston you'd know that there is an extremely delicate & precarious balance between normal heavy traffic flow around the city and total cockup chaos insanity, every day. One tractor-trailer rollover has been known to shut the city down for a whole day. I think this is the real reason why Boston reacted so dramatically. We talked to our friend in Boston yesterday to get his take on it (he works as a courier driver btw) and he said it was absolute madness in the city. He said the "ads" looked like computer motherboards and they were stationed at key traffic/cultural intersections like the BU Bridge, certain T (subway) stations, etc. I am not for censorship in any way but the whole mess might have been avoided if City Hall and the cops were told about the campaign. I think it was plain stupid, frankly. The guys deserve to be arrested and fined just as surely as if they'd put a live bear in the middle of Storrow Drive.
 
 
Jake, Colossus of Clout
02:22 / 02.02.07
New England can be a very repressed place

Compared to what? I've lived in very disparate areas of the US, and I find NE to be much more openminded than the norm.
 
 
grant
02:43 / 02.02.07
Did anyone hear their press conference after getting out of jail?

I think... I think they might be my heroes.

"...altogether, I want to redirect this on to the topic of haircuts in the '70s...."
 
 
ibis the being
03:19 / 02.02.07
Ehhh, sorry, as a native Massachusetter I can't think of those guys as anything but assholes. The one dude was from Arlington, for crying out loud... he should have known better than to SHUT DOWN 93. Boston is pretty openminded, liberal, ready to party, and has a sense of humor... it's no strange to a good prank either. But you don't fuck with the roadways in Boston, period.

I also find it a little... interesting... how people are rallying behind these guys as though this was some sort of great culture jamming experiment. But it was just commercial advertising for a Ted Turner cable network, not the most counterculture thing I can think of really.
 
 
Harold Washington died for you
03:36 / 02.02.07
Those guys are heroes.

I always liked Sealab more, but I might just have to see the ATHF movie now. I mean, like, pay for a ticket and everything. Call it my donation to the Time Warner Legal Defense Fund.
 
 
Jake, Colossus of Clout
03:42 / 02.02.07
Ibis has a good point. Has anyone here actually tried to drive in Boston? I could drop my sandwich and cause a traffic incident that would cripple the entire metropoiltan area for days.
 
 
Ticker
04:28 / 02.02.07
I lived in Boston for 10 years most of it was during art school when any attempt at public art was often, let's say, unsupported by the City or the police.

My comment about New England being repressive is built on many subjects but specific to this one I find it interesting that out of all the major cities involved in the marketing, Boston had the harshest reaction.

On a slightly different angle, am I correct in understanding the displays were up for two weeks in Boston before someone noticed or am I misreading the articles?
 
 
Harold Washington died for you
04:56 / 02.02.07
Haven't figured out why but I'm getting extremely upset about this story. If this company, Interference Inc., had meant for the adverts to be mistaken for bombs I'd say, sure, lynch these guys, and the board of Turner Broadcasting too.

But, but that's just crazy!

The good people of Boston should be wondering why their highly trained bomb squad had to shut down a subway and major interstate to blow up a billboard. And what, in that procedure, winds up costing half a million bucks. Don't they have dogs? One of those sniffer machines? Google and an ounce of common fucking sense?

And the mainstrem media (even CNN (owned, like Adult Swim, by Time Warner)) took this story of a traffic jam, incompetent policing, greedy and pandering politicians, and a heinous abuse of the judicial system and, against no odds, called it a "stunt" and railed mightily against the misuse of wires, batteries, and duct tape.

Fuck.
 
 
CameronStewart
08:36 / 02.02.07
This is one of those situations where no one comes out looking good - it was a stupid marketing idea, and a stupid overreaction to it.

I think they're gonna have a hard time trying to convince a judge or jury that the little Lite Brite things were deliberately meant to look like bombs, particularly when no one in any of the other cities paid them any notice.
 
 
diz
09:54 / 02.02.07
ibis:

I think it was plain stupid, frankly. The guys deserve to be arrested and fined just as surely as if they'd put a live bear in the middle of Storrow Drive.


I'm sorry, I just can't back you up on this, ibis.

The difference between this and releasing a live bear is that only an idiot would release a live bear thinking that it wouldn't disrupt people's lives, but you'd have to assume that everyone else in the entire city of Boston was a complete idiot for it to occur to you that someone might consider a Lite Brite to be a terrorist threat.

Neither the two guys in question, nor the marketing firm, nor Turner Broadcasting, are responsible for the hysterical overreaction of the men and women of Boston law enforcement, nor could they reasonably have been expected to see said reaction coming.

I mean, none of the other cities freaked out or thought it was a terrorist attack, and since the signs have been up for three weeks in all the locations you'd think they'd all have had plenty of time to notice them.

The one dude was from Arlington, for crying out loud... he should have known better than to SHUT DOWN 93.

He didn't shut down 93. The cops shut down 93. You're diverting responsibility away from where it belongs.

I also find it a little... interesting... how people are rallying behind these guys as though this was some sort of great culture jamming experiment. But it was just commercial advertising for a Ted Turner cable network, not the most counterculture thing I can think of really.

No, the advertising itself was not terribly counterculture. You could even argue that it's basically a commericialized derivative of the work of Invader, which segues into discussion about Invader's work reclaiming public space being repurposed by the Spectacle blah blah blah, etc.

However, the degree to which it inadvertently exposed the Powers That Be as a bunch of Keystone Kops is probably a better result than you could have gotten if it had been an intentional act of culture jamming, and, as grant points out, the press conference today was a brilliant bit of political theater. Mockery is so much more effective than outrage in the way it strips the dignity from the subject, and if there's any halo that needs popping in the US right now it's the aura of sanctity that's conferred upon paranoia.

CameronStewart:

This is one of those situations where no one comes out looking good - it was a stupid marketing idea, and a stupid overreaction to it.


I really don't see what was so stupid about it, and it kind of bothers me that even the people criticizing the response seem to feel it necessary to throw in those sorts of comments. "Well, obviously, they were stupid to do it..." No, they were not obviously stupid to do this, it wasn't an especially bad marketing gimmick, they weren't in any way out of line, and I think any concessions on that front set a very dangerous precedent. The government was 100% in the wrong, bears total responsibility for the clusterfuck that happened, they owe the artists and the city of Boston a serious apology, full stop.

I think they're gonna have a hard time trying to convince a judge or jury that the little Lite Brite things were deliberately meant to look like bombs, particularly when no one in any of the other cities paid them any notice.

The judge seemed skeptical at the hearing today. I think the prosecution is in for an uphill battle, and I can't say I'm unhappy about that.
 
 
ibis the being
16:05 / 02.02.07
Does anyone have a picture of the objects? I haven't seen any. Like I said, my friend described them as "computer motherboards," not cartoon Lite Brite displays. What they actually looked like may matter a lot.
 
 
grant
16:20 / 02.02.07
Check the eBay listings for full size version.

(The signs are now worth money.)

 
 
grant
16:23 / 02.02.07
Another listing here.
 
 
CameronStewart
16:25 / 02.02.07
>>>I really don't see what was so stupid about it, and it kind of bothers me that even the people criticizing the response seem to feel it necessary to throw in those sorts of comments. "Well, obviously, they were stupid to do it..." No, they were not obviously stupid to do this,<<<

Well, I disagree. Coordinated placement of ambiguous electronic devices in public places is, in my opinion, not the smartest idea, particularly in a climate of rampant, irrational and exaggerated paranoia of terrorism that has been instilled in the public consciousness by Fox News and the Dept of Homeland Security. They should have anticipated this as a, if not probable, at least possible consequence.

Make no mistake, *I* think that these things clearly weren't bombs, nor were they intended to look like bombs, and the men who've been arrested should not be sent to prison, and the whole fiasco is the result of incompetent city officials and a fearmongering media/government...but I can also understand why some people freaked out.
 
 
MattShepherd: I WEDDED KALI!
16:32 / 02.02.07
Exposed batteries and wires > hidden batteries and wires in "scare factor." Just a passing thought on seeing grant's picture above.
 
 
CameronStewart
16:35 / 02.02.07
Video of the 70's haircut press conference.
 
 
CameronStewart
16:47 / 02.02.07
Also video of the devices being constructed and installed.
 
 
Ticker
16:58 / 02.02.07
In one of the articles it was mentioned that Boston is admitedly over sensitive to terror alerts due to Logan Airport's role in 9/11.

I have a great deal of compassion for the guilt that is swimming around in the policies and process maps and how it is informing the quick to escalute behavior. Yet were the devices installed for 2-3 weeks before someone began the removal process?

If in fact the battery exposed wire devices were in visible locations for more than a few hours and no response was prompted one should question why. It strikes me that in Boston there is a good chance that people did see them and report them. This is pure speculation but I wouldn't be surprised if on a low level the local authorities dismissed the devices as harmless at first until someone having not seen them but only read a discription then activated code red.

Are we looking at a breakdown in Boston's response time or a double take? If it is a breakdown I imagine a lot of the resentment is being stirred up by the question of why the delay in response.

I'm curious about the laws on displaying signage and why the people are being charged with a hoax. Wouldn't a hoax charge need to prove intention to mislead?
 
 
grant
17:17 / 02.02.07
Seattle officials try really hard not to, like, make fun of Boston (and New Yorkers just take the things down without any fussing, and Portland is just leaving them up).
 
 
grant
17:19 / 02.02.07
Wouldn't a hoax charge need to prove intention to mislead?

Specifically, intention to cause panic in this particular case (or so CNN says). There's also a misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct, which might stick. I think the max sentence there is six months jail -- if the judge feels so inclined.


Security consultant thinks it's hooey, puts up lots of nice links, including one to a piece on the laws in question.

Basically, what I said above Ė intent or expectation that these things would be mistaken for bombs and cause panic.

And there's a photo of one of the things in place up here, along with the full quote from the Seattle cops (King County Sheriff, actually).

Let's just hope the accused don't blaspheme during the hearing.
 
 
CameronStewart
18:03 / 02.02.07
They're now saying that the reason the police responded to the Aqua Teen devices with such seriousness is that they also found two pipe bombs on the same day.

Spin to cover their ass?
 
 
Ticker
18:35 / 02.02.07
It sounds like spin as it wasn't highlighted in the first coverage.


But the responses from the other cities makes me feel better that all of America isn't as twitchy as a long tailed cat around rocking chairs. Or in this case around regular chairs.
 
 
Blake Head
19:57 / 02.02.07
From grantís link: forcing first responders to spend 12 hours chasing down trinkets instead of terrorists

The Boston P.D. arenít actually chasing down active terrorists that no-one else knows about are they? That isnít actually their full-time job right? The thought that it is would actually be quite frightening if I wasnít quite some distance away from all this silliness.
 
 
Ticker
20:06 / 02.02.07
Well...I'm curious about the differences in say how the NYC PD dealt with it versus the Boston PD. Traffic is difficult in both places, art/marketing happens in both places, and sadly/scarily so does violence and potential terrorism.

Why is Boston more freaked out than NYC?
 
 
Kali, Queen of Kitteh
20:20 / 02.02.07
Here in Atlanta, home of Turner Broadcasting, this story made the front page news. From what I could glean from the article, our local reporter seems to think that Northerners are just overreacting again.
 
 
diz
23:10 / 02.02.07
Coordinated placement of ambiguous electronic devices in public places

But they weren't ambiguous. They were Lite Brites.
 
 
CameronStewart
23:48 / 02.02.07
The character is only clearly visible at night, when the LED lights shine in the dark - during the day it just looks like a circuitboard with batteries and wires, the purpose of which, considering their small size and unusual placement, was unclear - it's not immediately apparent that they are advertisements for an animated motion picture. The character depicted on them is meaningless and unrecognizable to, I would bet, a huge majority of the public. Since they are not recognizable as advertising, and not recognizable as serving any other discernable purpose, it's not immediately apparent what they're there for at all - hence, ambiguous.
 
 
CameronStewart
00:06 / 03.02.07
I don't think these guys intended to set off a panic, I don't think they deliberately made the devices to resemble bombs (and I don't think they *do* resemble bombs). I think they had the best intentions. What I think they did wrong, and I think you're making the same error here, was to assume that *no one* could ever mistake them for bombs. Just because I don't think they look like a bomb doesn't mean I can't understand why other people might.
 
 
diz
01:13 / 03.02.07
What I think they did wrong, and I think you're making the same error here, was to assume that *no one* could ever mistake them for bombs.

The issue is not whether or not *anyone* could mistake these devices for bombs, it's whether or not any *reasonable* people could do so. Seeing as how no one in the other nine cities did so, and even in Boston no one did so for three weeks, I think it's safe to say that this response was unreasonable enough and uncommon enough that it's not reasonable to expect anyone else to have seen it coming.

Besides, isn't that the leading edge of the wedge of self-censorship? I think it's incredibly dangerous to expect everyone to refrain from any sort of expression which might conceivably be interpreted by the most stupid and paranoid people imaginable as dangerous.
 
  

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