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February 14, 2007
Capturing the Mooninites

At the beginning of the week, I sat down to write this column with the goal of illustrating the value of compelling branded material in the user-generated content era. I was going to remind us of the need to keep creating more and more thoughtful, experiential and curiosity-piquing ways to reach our clients’ audience out in the real, everyday world, to catch them during their normal, “brick and mortar” moments, and to give them content that they can take home with them, manipulate and “re-brand” to their heart’s content, and then share with rest of the vast virtual world. It was going to be a musing on branded entertainment for The New MEdia. And it was all coming together quite well.

And then the Mooninites attacked Boston.

By the time this piece gets published, I expect we’ll all be quite familiar with the events of that fateful day. But in case there are still those of you out there who haven’t heard, here’s what happened:

On the morning of Wednesday, January 31, 2007, 38 Mooninites descended on Boston and implanted themselves under bridges, highway overpasses, and near the subway stations in what appeared to some as a coordinated threat to the city’s civic infrastructure. Fortunately, thanks to the actions of several concerned citizens, a massive mobilization of Boston’s authorities and a security lockdown that brought the city “to a halt,” the Mooninite attack was neutralized, and the good people of Boston are now breathing easier. Ever since, the news networks, the world’s press, and the blogosphere have all been trying to figure out how this could have happened.

Sounds odd, you say? Well it is, especially when you consider that the Mooninites are characters from the Cartoon Network’s surreal show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, that they appeared in the form of glowing, '80s-style, “Lite Brite”-looking LED panels placed around the city and that their presence in Boston was a guerilla marketing effort approved by the Cartoon Network’s parent company Turner Broadcasting.

It’s easy to debate who’s at fault for this “marketing stunt run amok.” You can talk about a paranoid post 9/11 society, an irresponsible guerilla marketing scheme, or even conspiracy theories about how much of Boston’s panic was actually crafted for maximum buzz. Turner spokeswoman Shirley Powell said, “We were simply promoting a TV show. If we had ever perceived this to be something threatening safety, we would never have proceeded with it.” I have no problems taking her at her word on that. Call me an optimist, but I don’t really think an organization like the Cartoon Network would deliberately try to instill true fear in the populace of an entire city.

Nevertheless, the Mooninite Offensive is important to us in the communications industry, as it gives us a sense of how things can get when we’re not careful. A line was crossed, either intentionally or not, and now we see where that line is. Sure, it’s tough to ignore the massive PR value that Turner’s gotten out of this. Aqua Teen Hunger Force has officially been injected into the national consciousness, and it’ll be interesting to track the show’s ratings and the box office numbers when the movie opens in March. But as of this writing, two people have been arrested and Time Warner (Turner’s parent company) is negotiating a reparations settlement with the Massachusetts authorities. And then, of course, there’s the risk of actual negative fallout for Turner’s brand (I doubt “fear-mongering” is a brand attribute that The Cartoon Network is trying to create for itself.)

The challenge for us now, though, in this post-1/31 world, is to not let our own fear get the better of us. We need to keep coming up with creative, compelling ways to reach consumers out in the streets, where they live and breathe. We now live in a world where everyone carries a phone with a camera on it, where photos get uploaded to the Web in corner coffee shops and shared via Bluetooth, where “found” video shot on a street corner can get uploaded to a website like jumpcut.com and edited, scored and shared with millions of people in a matter of minutes. We still want to be a part of that. We want our clients to be a part of that.

If the New Hollywood is the “You Hollywood” (just ask AdAge or Time magazine), then we should be thinking about how to get our clients’ products and brands placed into those emerging scripts. And the new product placement isn’t going to be negotiated in a conference room or over a fax machine — it’s going to happen on location, on the “set”, as it were, of our public world. Give the new directors, photographers, writers and editors something positive to work with.

Just be careful and be positive — the Mooninites might not be so easily captured next time.

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As co-founder and head of client services at Scooter Media, the leading scooter-based advertising and promotions firm in the United States, Blake Wirht is driven by helping brands get their messages out into the world in clever ways that make people smile. Prior to his work in experiential marketing, Blake earned his wings as a copywriter for such brands as Virgin Atlantic, Disney and United Online. And before he even dipped his toe in the advertising industry, Blake was a truck driver. (He hauled tomatoes, mostly.)

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