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Published: Tuesday, 2/6/2007

A really dumb idea

WHAT were they thinking? That's the immediate response to what must surely be one of the most idiotic marketing ploys in recent memory. Instead of gleaning a positive response, or even generating a cool, underground buzz, a campaign for the "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" TV cartoon shut down parts of Boston and created fears of a potential terrorist attack.

The campaign got the program noticed, but not in ways the television network could have imagined.

Bridges, subway stations, a highway, and part of the Charles River were closed last week when the devices, which are fitted with lights on what appear to be circuit boards and represent characters from the cartoon, were discovered.

The stunt was part of a campaign to promote the program, which airs on Turner Broadcasting's Cartoon Network. Similar devices had been placed in cities from New York, where a street was closed when two of them were found on an overpass, to Seattle and San Francisco.

Officials including Boston's mayor and police commissioners were understandably outraged by the puerile advertising promotion, describing it as "unconscionable," and Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick said he would examine the state's recourses.

At the very least they'll presumably be seeking financial compensation for the time wasted by police, the FBI, and Homeland Security officials.

Turner Broadcasting apologized, and weakly expressed regret that the devices "were mistakenly thought to pose any danger." But being sorry for this stupid promotion, undertaken by a third-party advertising firm, isn't going to be enough to make it go away. Charges of creating panic and disorderly conduct brought against two men for placing the devices are insufficient in view of the furor they caused.

In the days before 9/11, putting the cartoon promotions around American cities might have been thought a harmless prank, even humorous. But today no one is laughing. In our present security-conscious world, placing devices that could be mistaken for bombs around major metropolitan areas is chronically stupid.

The only up-side in the whole sorry mess is that Americans are clearly paying more attention to their surroundings, on the lookout for anything that might appear suspicious.

Had the devices been dangerous, who knows how much damage or loss of life would have been averted by the timely notification of authorities in Boston?

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