Turner in trouble

Fallout from botched stunt continues

Turner Broadcasting executives spent Thursday meeting with Boston officials and their lawyers in a bid to avert legal action over a publicity stunt that caused a terror scare, costing the city $750,000 in additional police costs.

Both the mayor of Boston and the attorney general threatened legal action against Turner, a unit of Time Warner, but execs at the company are hoping a negotiated settlement can be reached.

Turner spokeswoman Shirley Powell confirmed that while the blinking devices were placed by local contractors for a third-party marketing firm, the campaign was approved and directed by the Adult Swim marketing department and Turner would take full responsibility for it.

“Our intention is to be a responsible company and do the right thing,” she said.

Powell said Turner has not decided if anyone would be fired for the campaign, or if it would defend the two men arrested in connection with the campaign to promote the “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” series.

Meanwhile, the campaign was quietly discontinued in the nine other cities where the devices have been blinking away for more than two weeks without triggering hysteria.

Gotham police removed 41 blinking devices around the city, 38 in Manhattan and three in Brooklyn. Philadelphia police found and removed 56 devices, according to the Associated Press, which described Seattle removals as “low-key.”

Turner showed no signs of curbing its street-marketing activities. Sister network Turner Classic Movies staged a mock red-carpet scene on Park Avenue South in Gotham on Thursday to promote “31 Days of Oscars,” complete with fake photographers and a Jack Nicholson impersonator.

“We have a lot of brands at Turner and we market those brands,” Powell said.

So-called “guerrilla” or “street” marketing, essentially stunts designed to create awareness outside traditional media channels, are standard operating procedure among cablers trying to reach young auds with niche programming.

With thousands of niche shows on the air, they’re desperate to find an audience and they have limited budgets to do it.

“Many of the traditional ways of marketing are flat-out not working,” said Paul Rand, partner at the Ketchum public relations firm. “The consumer is gaining the ability to filter out unwanted information, and that puts marketers in a new realm with a sense of desperation.”

Virtually every cable net pulls stunts, and every one contacted by Daily Variety on Thursday declined to discuss the issue. “There but for the grace of God go we,” said one exec at a rival conglom.

But since alternative street marketing and stunts are cheap and can be hugely successful, they’ve become commonplace, and they’re getting less scrutiny than they did when the approach was novel.

In a sense, the campaign more than achieved the kind of subversive publicity Adult Swim was seeking. “In a perverse way, they achieved what they set out to do,” said Paul Woolmington, founding partner of Naked Communications.

But guerrilla tactics are intrinsically risky for corporate America. In 2002, Microsoft angered Gotham officials by littering sidewalks with decals of its butterfly logo.

“There is more and more pressure, especially among large companies, to find creative, nontraditional ways to find an audience,” said Michael Levine, author of “Guerrilla PR.” “But nontraditional isn’t the same as stupid or irresponsible.”

The stunt also may have repercussions for Turner on Capitol Hill. The stunt angered Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who condemned the campaign in a statement Wednesday night. Markey chairs the key House Subcommittee on Internet & Communications, part of the committee that has oversight of the Federal Communications Commission.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) also expressed outrage. “I intend to look into this issue and work with both federal and local law enforcement to determine how it happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again,” he said in a statement.

(William Triplett in Washington contributed to this report.)

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