TBS contrite for PR debacle

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NEW YORK -- Turner Broadcasting System on Thursday tried to quell a firestorm of controversy in Boston a day after a guerrilla marketing campaign for a cable network was mistaken for a terrorist plot to bomb the Hub.

Two local men appeared in court Thursday to answer charges that they placed "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" light-box ads in 40 locations. But city and state officials vowed that they would go further, seeking to make Turner Broadcasting pay for the nearly 10 hours of chaos that disrupted traffic, closed bridges and roadways and put the city onto a terror alert.

Turner Broadcasting System chairman and CEO Phil Kent was holed up in his Atlanta office, dealing with the fallout from the marketing campaign that was placed for weeks in 10 cities but only caused a commotion in Boston. Kent spoke to Boston Mayor Tom Menino on Wednesday night and again Thursday to apologize for the incident. Menino is quoted as saying that an apology isn't enough, though a Turner spokeswoman declined to discuss what was said during the call.

"We're doing everything in our power as a responsible company to do what's right," said Turner spokeswoman Shirley Powell. No other executives from Turner or Time Warner would talk about the incident Thursday.

Powell said the Adult Swim marketing department approved the campaign to promote "Aqua Teen Hunger Force," a late-night animated series with a target demographic of young adult males. Adult Swim executives chose the cities and left it to its guerrilla marketer, Interference Inc. of New York, to carry it out in very specific neighborhoods. Promoting the show was the only objective, Turner said.

"The big misperception is that we intended to create some kind of hoax," Powell said. "That couldn't be further from the truth. This was never intended or designed as a marketing stunt to create fear." Powell said that Turner would never have done it if it felt it was dangerous or could foresee what happened in Boston.

But a lawyer whose firm represents several marketing communications companies says that his firm advises clients to make sure that the guerrilla marketing campaigns don't run afoul of laws that involve criminal mischief, graffiti or unlawful posting on public property. Joseph Lewczak, a partner at Davis & Gilbert in New York City, thinks that Turner could have been smarter about the way they handled the campaign, particularly one that had a less-than-innocuous look to it to some people's way of thinking.

"You always have to be careful about any type of guerrilla marketing campaign. It's just knowing what that line is. It's a business judgment more than a legal judgment to find what's appropriate given ... the times we live in," Lewczak said.

He believes that Turner will end up being forced to pay authorities for their costs but said that individual or class-action lawsuits against it probably won't fly. Neither will a clamoring in some corners to hold Turner executives liable.

"As far as the criminal charges against executives at Turner, I don't know how far they'll take that," Lewczak said.

Paul Sullivan, a print journalist who has a talk show on Boston's WBZ-AM, said that tempers don't seem to have cooled, particularly in the corridors of power at City Hall and the Statehouse.

"There is an outrage at the lack of understanding that a corporate group has about how irresponsible this was that crosses the political spectrum," Sullivan said Thursday. "Everybody around here seems to be unified about it. What kind of numbskull would have come out with this type of marketing campaign in a post-9/11 world?"

Sullivan said there's plenty of outrage about the perceived lack of seriousness on Turner's part in the initial stages where it took nearly 10 hours for word to filter to Boston that it was a marketing campaign gone awry. In that time, he said, "it was a real problem for those in Boston."

He doesn't think Turner gets how serious this was.

"I haven't heard any of the shame that should be the prerequisite response from Turner Broadcasting," Sullivan said.
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