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February 03, 2007

Guerilla marketing is corporate vandalism: Sam Ewen and Interference, Inc. are the real villains in the Boston Mooninite debacle

Many questions remain unanswered about Wednesday's bomb scare in Boston. Did the police overreact? How could 400 LEDs hang for 2-3 weeks in 10 cities including Boston without incident prior to Wednesday's panic?

One thing we do know is that Sam Ewen's "guerilla marketing" firm Interference, Inc. needlessly terrorized a city and abandoned two twenty-something artists to face criminal charges that could wreck their lives. Interference knew about the bomb scare but didn't tell the police. Instead, the firm pressured the two installation artists to keep quiet while chaos and fear gripped a major city.

The Boston Globe has revealed that Interference knew about the bomb scare in Boston as early as 1:25pm on Wednesday and emailed the installers, Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky, asking them to keep quiet:

According to friends, Stevens and Berdovsky, who perform and install video art, were elated to be hired to hang the magnetic cartoon signs around the city to promote the show "Aqua Teen Hunger Force ." In November, Berdovsky met a man in Brooklyn, N.Y., who asked him whether he was interested in the work, and Berdovsky later recruited Stevens, according to a police report. The two men were to be paid $300 each by Interference.

The two, who live in an apartment next to railroad tracks just off Interstate 93, are huge fans of the show, which features "Mooninite" cartoon figures and animated French Fries, a meatball, and a milkshake.

"They were really excited," said Travis Vautour , 24, of Cleveland Circle. "We saw all the pieces up two or three weeks ago, and we all had a good laugh."

The laughter faded late Wednesday morning when the friends saw television footage of police blowing up one of the signs and realized what was happening. The friends e-mailed links to the footage to one another. About 1:25 p.m. Berdovsky e-mailed several friends and said the advertising firm had told him to keep quiet, friends said. [BG]

Interference did not contact the police. Turner Broadcasting claims that it didn't hear from Interference about the uproar until 5pm that afternoon. Meanwhile, the city of Boston was paralyzed, federal officials were rushing to the scene, and US Northern Command was monitoring the situation at its Colorado Springs headquarters.

According to the Globe article, Interference didn't even have the decency to post bond for Stevens and Berdovsky.

Relatives and friends posted the $2,500 cash bail for both men. They pleaded not guilty to one count of disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, and one count of placing a hoax device, a felony that carries a maximum of five years' imprisonment.

If Ewen or anyone else at Interference knew about the bomb scare and failed to inform authorities, that's a hoax. The two artists have been charged with hoaxing, but there's no reason to believe that they realized the Mooninite gizmos would cause a bomb scare. On the other hand, Interference seems to have realized that a bomb scare was underway and allowed it to continue for several hours. You can't have a hoax without an intent deceive. The guys who put up the ads didn't intend to convince the public that their LEDs were bombs. Whereas, it seems like Interference wanted the public to believe in the phony bomb scare as long as possible. Maybe they were just stalling and not hoaxing. I hope a jury gets a chance to decide this question soon.

Good for the Globe for including this quote, "Had they foreseen anything like this happening, they wouldn't have done it at all," Vautour said. "It isn't an act of rebellion; it's just a job."

That's right. Just a job. A crappy one-night assignment followed by criminal charges. This isn't a story about alternative culture or freedom of speech, or even terror hysteria. This is about corporate greed and exploitation.

Update: A lawyer for Interference claims that the company "acted with all due and deliberate speed. CEO Sam Ewen denies that Interference tried to silence the artists:

The statement said that Interference first received word that its marketing campaign had gone awry when Peter Berdovsky, the artist whom it hired to install the signs in Boston, called the firm's office in SoHo "to explain that the marketing campaign had become a story in the local news."

In the e-mail that friends said Berdovsky sent them, he said an Interference executive had asked him to "pretty please keep everything on the dl," slang for down low, or quiet.

But Ewen, in his statement, said his company immediately informed Turner Broadcasting and told officials in Boston and the nine other cities where they could find the signs. "At no time, and in no way, did we ever seek to hide our involvement in this situation or ask or direct others to do so," he said. [BG]

The article doesn't say what time Interference claims that Berdovsky called the SoHo office. Remember that Turner says it didn't know about the bomb scare until 5 o'clock that afternoon, but the first report came in at eight o'clock in the morning, followed by 4 more calls around 1 o'clock that afternoon.

Turner chairman Phil Kent says he heard about the bomb scare from a colleague who saw the news on CNN.

We'll have to wait on the authentication of the emails and phone records for the SoHo office. Of course, if Interference called the police, that should be a matter of public record.

Update 2: Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis issued a statement that at approximately 4:30 p.m detectives "were contacted and were verifying information from representatives from the corporation responsible for this advertising campaign." The commissioner didn't say whether it Interference or Turner made the 4:30 call. By 4:51 pm, Turner was confirmed to have accepted responsibility for planting the devices.


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» A few Boston updates from Making Light
There are rumors that charges against Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky will be dropped, but so far I haven't seen... [Read More]


Interference may be villains. So what? The fact remains - the city government was unable to deal with something that - as far as threat was concerned - should have been disposed of in short order. There is footage (I saw it in a you-tube clip on Gilliard's web site) of the Mayor saying (paraphrased), "Turner says this is a marketing thing, but we're not sure we believe them yet". Interference was _more_ likely to be able to derail this juggernaut?
Hoax - not so. At no time AFAIK, were the devices represented to be bombs. Maybe you could argue (and I'd agree) that Interference were hugely (criminally?) negligent in not fessing up - but nobody affimatively claimed (outside of the media and the city government) that theses things were bombs.
I doubt Sean and Peter will do any further time for their work. Everybody - again, except for Hizzoner and the media - see this for what it is - whup on the little fish because we're so embarassed.

Actually, Interference denies that they told the artists to keep quiet. See this story in today's Globe.

ok, so i see you edited out the line that's still on this post over at ThisModernWorld - "this isnt about...terror hysteria." well, actually, it is. duh. this is about a complete over-reaction to some litebrites, and more fearmongering and paranoia over nothing. yeah, maybe corporate exploitation too, but that aint the real story. i'm assuming you realized this and that's why you've deleted that line from this version of the post.

Lindsay, thanks for the updates on this story. Corporate greed sometimes has little bounds or ends and leaves some workers in a real state sometimes. My best friend, a machinist in a nonunion shop was almost cut in half by a gaint lathe a few years ago in a horrible closed casket death. In an union shop such an accident would have been highly unlikely.

Today I posted a feature on my website, about union busting tactics practiced by as many as 91% of all American businesses. Only 7.4% of private sector workers are now unionized.

Actually, I'm going to add that line back in over here. I added it when I cross-posted at TMW and forgot to put it back in at Majikthise.

I'm not saying that terror hysteria played no role in this problem. There's so much blame to go around, it's not even funny. It's also very likely that the BPD botched the response. However, if Interference withheld critical information, then it is complicit in that botch job.

Turner is also partly responsible for advertising illegally. If you leave weird shit lying around, you run the risk that people will interpret it the wrong way. It's not a likely event, but it's a possibility. And, if you don't notify the authorities in advance, things are more likely to spiral out of control because there's no one who can say, "Oh, yeah. That's just a Lite Brite that Interference paid to put up."

It's not clear to me why greed would lead Interference to withhold information, if they were responding to their greed rationally. It seems impossible that Boston wouldn't figure this out eventually. There was no way Interference was going to ultimately evade notice on this. A rational greedy company would've tried to be as helpful as possible in order to stay on the city's good side and try to keep the costs of the incident low.

It seems like poor judgment, panic, and a lack of preparedness could explain a choice to withhold information better than greed can.

There are multiple interwoven stories here. Frankly I think the under reported story is this: Turner is also partly responsible for advertising illegally.

I'd state it more strongly than that, but the essential fact is that Turner solicited lawbreaking (trespass at minimum). For that alone they should pay substantial fines. This isn't a matter of free speech, it's a matter of pseudo-speech by a fictive 'person.'

You shouldn't believe a damn thing Sam Ewen, his PR firm or his lawyer say. It's not in their best interests to represent Interference's act as anything other than responsible once they were apprised of the situation. However, the initial facts prove otherwise.

"According to an e-mail one friend provided to the Globe, the executive at Interference Inc. told the artist, whom the agency had hired to install the small, battery-powered light screens in Boston, to remain silent...The (Interference) executive asked Peter Berdovsky to 'pretty please keep everything on the dl,' slang for down low, or hush-hush." That e-mail was received at 1:25PM

If Sam Ewen had acted responibly and in a timely manner, it's unlikely he would have battened down the hatches. His reaction was to pull his website, close the office, turn off his cellphone, etc. It took him two days to hire a lawyer and a PR firm fer chrissakes.

As I posted on the original thread, Interference directed their street teamers to engage in criminal behaviour by targeting infrastructure. Nowhere in the country was this more the case than in Boston. You can see this clearly on the Interference-sponsored video Lindsay posted earlier. The signs are placed at multiple T stations and an overpass. Apparently the most questionable signs were in placed less than 36 hours before they created an uproar.

I hate this post-911 culture of fear. I do think overall the Boston authorities could have acted in a more measured, appropriate manner. But they only have to be wrong once. In Madrid's Cercanías, bombs triggered by cell phones killed almost 200 and wounded thousands. Anyone who embarks on a nationwide campaign to place unidentitfied battery-powered devices on infrastructure w/o notifying the authorities needs their head examined.


Here's why I'm being such a PITA about this...
There are very few terrorists. There's a lot of real life going on and it is getting weirder, more interesting and more diverse by the minute. One of the key tasks of a _real_ security policy in a free society is distinguishing real threats (very few) from false alarms (vast majority). If an organization (BPD, Northern Command (Northern Command?!? - jeebus)) blows it as badly as it was blown in Boston, the first order of business is to acknowledge a mistake and then - once the dust has settled - do a 'lessons learned' so that an obviously effed up process gets better. I'll worry about Turner and Interference after I see steps 1 and 2 take place. I haven't heard anyone in the Boston hierarchy even admit a mistake - 'Better safe than sorry' seems to be the mantra. What we as citizens get is security theater and hysteria rather than quiet competence. At least Sean and Peter recognize the theater aspect - their press conference was the best thing evar. This could have been a real artist - someone who wasn't watching TV that day - hell, it could have been somebody putting strange trash out - the response can't rely on someone popping up and saying "Oh, that was just me, don't worry about it". Advertising, legal or illegal - art - trash - who knows what - we need to be able to sort it out without pulling a full freak out.

lindsay, fix your bold tag. everything i say is bolded! it's so important!!

this stuff about the emails is old news to skippy. abc reported on thursday that those guys emailed their friends not to tell anyone they were involved.

also in the same post, find a link to a report that indicates the boston pd is last among major metropolitan u.s. cities in solving major crimes.

the question i'm asking is, why could 8 other city admnistrations deal with children's toys w/o forcing rivers to run backwards for a day?

if i plant fake cockroaches in 9 cubicles in an office building, and 8 of those cubicle-worker drones toss them aside with a "what an asshole he is," but the last one calls exterminators to fumigate the whole building, am i responsible for the bill?

i think not.

however, to be fair, reports that the boston pd had gotten info from homeland security about a washington train station being shut down and a new york post office being overwhelmed by fumes, not to mention the terror plot in london being thwarted that same day.

plus one device the bpd found was designed to scare the public at random, left by a nutjob unrelated to the aqua teen campaign.



Emergency!-Fix the closing bold tag that follows Update in your update. It's affecting all the prior posts. (Does the fact that I noticed this and no one else did suggest I have the sensitivities of a Bostonian?)

While it's always fun to attack a corporation, the more pain that Interference and Turner feel from this, the louder a message it will send to activists and independent artists with no lawyers of their own who might try something similar. Don't step out of line. Don't do anything unless you can justify it to us.


I think the message it sends to artist/activists/everyone else is to be mindful and to use common sense. There are plenty of ways to deliver your message without it being so horribly misconstrued. These street teamers may be artists but it's too far of a stretch to say they were acting as such when they put up the signs. They were making $300 at the behest of a corporation. It's not like they made the signs or create this campaign. While there's often an art to acting as a provocateur, I don't see it here.


The Interference yoyos clearly have some blame to share, but Jesus Christ, panic all the way up to USNORTHCOM? WTF? Post 9/11 we’ve become a nation of hand-wringing, bed-wetters. What happened to the country that once flocked overseas to die in the French hedgerows and on Pacific island beaches? Once America had balls of cold-forged steel, now a fucking door slams and we collectively shit ourselves. The only people to come out of this without egg on their faces are the two goofy guys who were hired to place the gizmos around town. The “press conference” in which they refused to address any non hair related questions was priceless.

The above is not meant to denigrate the current American soldiers who volunteered and now have their hands full trying to make a silk purse out of a thoroughly rotten sow’s ear.

Has anyone else here thought that now that this has happened, that real terrorists might adopt this tactic to plant real explosives in large urban areas just because they think that we won't take shit like this seriously anymore? You know, the whole "boy who cried wolf" thing. I'm not at all trying to be a contrarian or a pants-pissing conservative. I'm just wondering what some of you think about this hypothetical scenario. I mean if I were a terrorist operating here in America, I would certainly give it some serious consideration if I thought it was a feasible plan. Food for thought, if nothing else.


Short answer, no.

Terrorists, if they so chose, could hide bombs in so many innocous looking things that if we worried about them all we would all be Chicken Little not the boy who cried wolf. This does not even get you to the "places" where you could hide bombs. Why the hell put them in something that draws attention to itself by flashing lights? Next, if the the terrorist is going to martyr his ass, he does not give a damn if the bomb is going to be sitting anywhere. He is just worried about getting himself and the bomb to the target and going boom.

Is this another example of insipid and lame advertising cluttering our lives, you bet. Is this a great threat to our security, hell no.

I take the point about underground advertising; on the other hand, I clean spam out of my blog's comments every day, and I don't expect the Department of Homeland Security to hold my hand. Ultimately, I think the question of whether or not Sam Ewen is the moral equivalent of a spammer is a separate issue.

The basic issue is this: if "Did the police overreact?" is an unanswered question, I'm afraid it is must join those other vexing riddles that never will be satisfactorily resolved, like "Is the Pope Catholic?" and "Do bears shit in the woods?"

What went wrong? The Boston police and city government overreacted. Worse, having overreacted, the shame of admitting embarassment proved to be worse in their eyes than multiplying the actual embarassment many times over without acknowledging it.

This point out the need for embarassment sensitivity training for public officials, so they learn how to do their jobs more efficiently and safely, weathering the inevitably occasional blushing cheek.

Look, I think that is it nice that Turner Broadcasting has apparently agreed to reimburse the city. But I think it would be a terrible precedent for anyone involved, including Interference, to be convicted of any crimes stemming from the claim that these LEDs were hoax devices. Illegally putting up advertising on public buildings, I can see, or related charges for paying someone to perform an illegal act, sure.

But to get a conviction for a planting a hoax device or some similar crime, or even to win a civil lawsuit against one or both of the companies involved, would degrade what passes for common sense in this country in a bad way. Sometimes a false alarm is just a false alarm, and to claim that these folks weren't using common sense seems ludicrous to me. If a LED display of a cartoon character is a bomb hoax, then absolutely ANYTHING can be a bomb hoax. Although I'm sure it wouldn't happen, you could be charged with a bomb hoax for leaving your cell phone on the subway!

Once we reach the point where anything out of the ordinary can be legitmately considered a bomb threat, how long is it going to be before someone decides to prosecute Freeway Bloggers, street art, or anything else they don't like? How long before someone freaks out about some political protest, and now it is an activist organization instead of a corporation that is getting sued? Who really wants to live in a world where the reasonableness standard to determine legal culpability comes to mean "what jumpy, fear-ridden, public would think"? I certainly don't.

I don't think Turner or Interference will be charged with planting a hoax device. I think there are much more appropriate charges that could be lodged against Interference if it turns out they knew they had caused a national security panic and tried to hush it up.

Of course, there's also the possibility of civil suits, too.

The reasonableness is not to leave your illegal crap lying around the city. If it causes a bomb scare, you're on the hook. Not for deliberately planning a bomb scare, but for leaving illegal crap around the city. For the most part, illegal advertising isn't a crime, but it can and should open illegal advertisers up to massive civil suits to recoup the damages.

Spammers cost people businesses and individuals huge amounts of time and money every year. As far as I'm concerned, they're malignant parasites who should be stamped out. Still, unsolicited bulk email is at best a legal grey area. What Interference did was flat-out illegal, regardless of whether it reminded anyone of a bomb.


If we put aside for a minute the question as to whether Interference tried to cover things up after the fact, what exactly is the rationale for holding Turner or Interference culpable for the costs associated with the police reaction and associated commuter nightmare? I will be the first to admit that I don't know the full scope of the law here. But it seems like there are two separate and clearly distinct issues in my mind.

Intereference / Turner clearly put up hundreds of advertisments as part of a guerilla marketing campaign; presumably many of these were either placed illegally, or broke some other rarely enforced ordinance, right? Whether it is trespassing, illegal postering, whatever -- the act of placing these advertisments was a criminal act in and of itself, regardless of the later consequences.

On the other hand, the Boston police, the MBTA, and other officials reacted to these (presumably illegal) advertising. To me, this clearly falls into the realm of unintended consequences. To hold Turner, Intereference, or anyone else legally responsible for the costs associated with the police response seems crazy to me. I'm uncomfortable with the idea that reacting to an advertisment for a cartoon show as if it were a massive terrorist threat is considered reasonable. Now, maybe I am missing something, and like I said IANAL, but I don't see how someone can be held legally accountable for consequences that could not have been reasonably anticipated.


I beg to differ. One big problem. When the first signs were discovered, it was impossible to tell that they were merely LED. IT WAS DAYLIGHT. Even try to read an LED clock from a distance in the bright sunshine? At 10:00 in the morning placed high on an overpass, it didn't look like a LED sign. Once BPD removed the sign, it's not like it said "ATHF", "Cartoon Network" or "Return to Interference Inc."if found.

This was done on purpose by Interference. Any identifying features would facilitate prosecution of the parties involved. Only the most egregious cases are prosecuted normally with a fine paid per each sign. Interference is not a new company. Ewen & co. knew that they were engaging in an albeit minor criminal enterprise. In a normal worst case scenario, any fines paid would be more than offset by the client's fee.

Yes, sadly today even unusual, apparently innocuous , electrical devices slightly larger than laptops with protruding wires and batteries attached to bridge supports, highway overpasses and at transit stations are perceived as a threat. That's the way it is. These were not traditional posted bills, bumperstickers, posters, traditional signs or ham sandwiches.

Common sense went out the window when Interference generated this campaign.


You might consider looking into the story of Howard Keith Henson. Your time would be much appreciated by him and his supporters.


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