Six years ago, on Jan. 31, 2007, the Boston Police Department bomb squad responded to a call from the MBTA. The threat: An unidentified electronic device attached to an elevated section of I-93 in Sullivan Square. The catch: the “bomb” was part of a marketing campaign.
Marketing Gone Wrong
It all started with the marketing company Interference, Inc., who wanted to promote the upcoming film “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters,” based on the Cartoon Network series “Aqua Teen Hunger Force,” with a guerilla marketing campaign. They decided to hang glowing signs modeled after Aqua Teen Hunger Force characters in cities across the country, from Los Angeles, to Chicago, to Boston.
Interference whipped up 40 LED signs arranged to look like Aqua Teen Hunger Force “Mooninite” characters and sent them to Boston artist Zebbler, also known as Peter Berdovsky. On two nights in late January, Zebbler and his friend Sean Stevens hung up the signs in high traffic areas around Boston, Somerville, and Cambridge.
For a few days, no one seemed to notice the signs. But on Jan. 31, a passenger tipped off the MBTA to the sign hanging above Sullivan Square, tipping off the call to the Police Department’s bomb squad. With their electrical tape and exposed wiring, the police mistook the signs for improvised explosive devices and responded accordingly, closing sections of I-93 and the MBTA. The police responded to further tips throughout the day — both the Longfellow Bridge and the BU bridge were closed, and the Coast Guard even cordoned off the Charles River.
It wasn’t until around 2 pm, five hours after the initial report, that a member of the Boston Police Department identified the characters on the signs and concluded that they were part of a marketing campaign. A few hours later, Turner Broadcasting Company, the parent company of Cartoon Network, issued a statement apologizing for the confusion. Zebbler and Stevens were arrested by Boston Police and charged with placing a “hoax device” that would incite public panic. They were released the next day on bail.
Six Years Later
What was the fallout from the scare? Both local and national media outlets derided Boston Law enforcement for failing to recognize a PR stunt gone wrong. Many young Bostonians felt the arrest of Zebbler and Stevens was an overreaction. As one student noted, “the majority of us recognize the difference between a bomb and a Lite Brite.”
As for the parties involved, Interference, Inc. is still designing guerilla marketing campaigns for companies from Godiva to Netflix, although their website doesn’t mention their work with Cartoon Network. "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" is still going strong — there's a show tonight, if you're interested. Zebbler is still active in Boston’s art scene — his website features pictures of an instillation he designed for DEFCON 2012 and an album with Gravitas RecoMds.
Asked to comment on the Mooninite scare, Zebbler called the incident "Symptomatic of Boston's and [the] United States' culture at the time." But despite the media backlash and jail time, he wouldn't rule out the possibility of participating in another guerilla marketing campaign.
"I love doing what I am doing right now — playing dance music and intense visuals for crowds of sweaty people," Zebbler said. "But if there's a good cause to promote — you may find me hitting the streets yet again."
How’s that for a “this day in history”?