It’s Official: Life is now a Stage Set for Ads


February 1, 2007


Browse in Advertising

You may have read about the marketing campaign in Boston that turned into a city-wide fiasco.  An ad agency with the apt name of Interference Inc. deployed small electronic light screens with batteries and wires around the city to advertise a Turner Broadcasting cartoon show. Employees affixed the devices to bridge supports, the sides of buildings, even outside Fenway Park.  A transit worker saw one on a freeway off ramp, and thought it might be a bomb. (The cartoon images on the screens were not clearly visible in daylight.)

Bomb experts were summoned. Traffic was held up for hours. Reports came of other such devices elsewhere around town.  Before the day was over the city had spent over half a million dollars, officials say.  Now Boston Mayor Tom Menino is demanding compensation. Turner Broadcasting has apologized.   The media meanwhile is playing the story as a clueless officialdom that is out of touch with the hip new ways of “viral marketing”, which takes ads out of their traditional media contexts and seeks to imbed them the normal processes of daily life.

“Marketing gambit exposes a wide generation gap,” the Boston  Globe headline said. The transit worker who first reported the device, the reporter sniffed, was “less attuned to the latest in underground marketing techniques” than were the students and others quoted in the article. Well, can we talk about those hip new techniques a bit?  Where is it written that corporations have an automatic right to expropriate any aspect of a city in order to push their products?   How come what’s ours is fair game for them, but what’s theirs is not fair game for us?

Viral marketing has an even more insidious aspect – namely, the way it breeds cynicism and distrust. Ad agencies are enlisting people to tout products on the sly to neighbors, friends, and others they encounter.  Interference Inc. has planted people on the New York City subways to laud particular financial advisers; and has sent attractive women into bars to sit with packs of a cigarette brand the agency was promoting.  The brains – if that’s the word – behind these campaigns, Interference CEO Sam Travis Ewen, was named one of Brandweek Magazine’s “Guerilla Marketers of the Year.”

It is comforting to know that a whole industry considers it a mark of distinction to cause us all to wonder whether the people we encounter are secret agents for a corporation (a little the way East Germans once had to wonder whether their friends actually were informers of Stasi, the state intelligence agency.) .  It is comforting too that this industry is willing to bring a city to a halt to promote a cartoon show called Aqua Teen Hunger Force, which features characters based on fast food items.  (Frylock looks like a red container of McDonald’s fries.)

At least we all have our priorities straight.  But the most comforting part of all is that our cities – which is to say, our common spaces – have become little more than stage sets for ads.  The Interference Inc. campaign ran in numerous other cities besides Boston, apparently with no incidents that a newspaper might deem worthy of reporting – that is, besides the commercial expropriation of the city itself.

Cities aren’t the only places this is happening.  A couple of weeks ago, in the next town over from here, a film crew from Los Angeles commandeered the town center to shoot a commercial for a diabetes drug.  (The crew wouldn’t name the company.)  People had to sit in traffic for 20-25 minutes just to pick up their mail.  Access to the volunteer fire department was blocked.  The ad portrayed a motorcycle rider enjoying the freedom that the diabetes drug provided her.  Because of that corporate portrayal of a fictional freedom, actual people couldn’t move at all.

Might there be an epitome here?  As one resident, a tree cutter, put it in a letter to the local weekly, “(I)t was just another job by People Infatuated by More Profit…PIMP.”