'Aqua Teen' Incident Begs Question: Have We Become Too Paranoid?

Two men being charged in botched promo campaign for TV show.

Boston is still mopping up from the Wednesday bomb scare/ Mooninite fiasco that virtually shut down the city. Police were called to diffuse a bunch of devices that turned out to be home-cooked, Lite-Brite-like promos for the cartoon "Aqua Teen Hunger Force."

The massive effort to find and destroy the profane, bird-flipping promos dominated afternoon coverage on major news networks. It also led to a pair of not-guilty pleas on Thursday morning (February 1) from the two starving artists who planted the 38 devices as part of a 10-city guerilla-marketing campaign for the popular "Adult Swim" show's new season.

Boston city officials were enraged by the stunt, which included devices planted under bridges, near storefronts and outside Fenway Park. One of them was discovered by a transportation worker, who found it affixed to an interstate ramp in the early morning. That set off a chain reaction of calls about similar devices. City officials are also considering charging Turner Broadcasting System Inc. — which is the parent company of the Cartoon Network, home to "Aqua Teen" — between $500,000 and $1 million to cover the cost of the response.

Given the massive effort, we wondered if — in light of the hundreds of false alarms called in every week around the country in the years since 9/11 — have we become too paranoid?

"I think it was the right reaction," said Ed Clark, former director of the Homeland Security Threats Office and Special Forces veteran. "We've accomplished the first phase of educating the American public in what they're required to do. We can't make the assumption that everything will be all right anymore." If nothing else, Clark said the response to the botched promo campaign was another opportunity for officials to get real-life, in-the-field experience.

Clark, who teaches a course on how to recognize suspicious devices, said he was encouraged that citizens called in the moon men. But even he admitted that it was not likely that a "transnational Islamic group would put a cartoon character flipping the bird" on an explosive device if they were serious about inflicting harm.

Russ Knocke, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security, also praised authorities for their quick response and attempts to keep the public appraised of the situation. He said the stunt was just one of dozens of similar everyday incidents that are investigated and turn out to be false alarms. "Prior to the incidents in Boston, there were three or four [false alarms] around the Washington, D.C., area before noon," he said. "We need the public to be vigilant if they see something abnormal."

Then again, the devices sat around in Boston, the city's surrounding areas and nine other major cities for weeks without anyone calling in to report them. So does the Beantown bust really mean we're more or less vigilant? Have we even learned a lesson about what kinds of things are suspicious and what's probably a prank?

"Someone sent in a picture from another city at least a week ago," said Mark Frauenfelder, who runs the technology-project magazine and Web site Make, which posted images of one of the objects found by a user on January 17. "If the city wants to make Turner pay $675,000 for this, that's a cheap ad for the amount of publicity they're getting off of it. Everyone will TiVo 'Aqua Teen' now, even people who've never heard of it. This is the kind of publicity that could turn it into the next 'South Park.' "

Frauenfelder said he loved the "brilliant little signs" and said they were fun to look at and couldn't see how anyone but the most paranoid person would find them anything but innocuous. "A colored, lighted-up cartoon character displayed in plain sight goes against every rule for planting a bomb," he said. "Usually these things are concealed in a box or on a bomber's body and they're not laid out in plain sight like ads."

And while Frauenfelder thought it was a good sign that authorities responded when the devices were found, the fact that they went unnoticed in the other major cities for two weeks struck him as a serious failure on the part of Homeland Security.

Whether they prove that we're too paranoid or simply more alert than in the past, the Mooninites certainly did their job. "They made the evening news everywhere, and it very successfully tapped into everyone's zeitgeist about being afraid of terrorism, so in that sense it worked," said Lucian James, founder of Agenda Inc., a marketing-strategy company. He likened the huge reaction to a similar, less-intense flap over a street promotion last summer for "Mission: Impossible III" that involved music boxes with dangling wires that played the movie's theme song and were placed inside newspaper boxes.

"The goal of guerrilla marketing is to break through the clutter, but the problem is that the clutter is created by attempts like this that go wrong or blur the consumer's mind, and you have to create ever-increasing ways to do it," James said. "It's a little stupid I guess, but did they do it deliberately? Probably not."

Turner Broadcasting System Inc. apologized for the campaign later in the day, saying in a statement, "We really deeply regret that it was horribly misinterpreted to be a public danger, when all it was intended to do was to draw attention to a late-night television show. This is not the kind of publicity we would ever seek."

And while city officials were understandably peeved about the expense, hassle and endlessly looped images of bomb-suit-wearing specialists exploding and pressure-hosing profane pixel figures, some Bostonians seem to have taken it in stride — their sarcastic sense of humor intact. There were reports that some subway riders in the city were greeted Thursday morning by kids handing out posters with pictures of Mooninites on them reading: "1-31-07, NEVER FORGET." And someone from Brighton, Massachusetts, was already selling a commemorative T-shirt on eBay less than 24 hours later featuring a finger-flipping Mooninite and the words, "Up Yours Boston."