01 Feb

The Animated Menace

Yesterday, the city of Boston practically shut down because a transit worker spotted a "mysterious device" beneath a freeway overpass.  The Orange Line trains were halted at three stops, highway 93 was shut down, and later in the day, another subway line, two bridges, and a river were blocked.  As it turns out, the transit worker spotted a piece of "viral" advertising for the Cartoon Network’s "Aqua Teen Hunger Force."  While seeing a piece of electronic equipment with a battery and some wires protruding from its backside might understandably raise concern, one would think that after noticing it was a light bright with a cartoon character on it, that the panic would have subsided.  But it didn’t.  The panic continued throughout the day as people noticed more of these things (that had been around for weeks already) across the city.  We were under attack, and this time by some bomber with a taste for animation. 

By the late afternoon, Turner Broadcasting System (the owner of the Cartoon Network) announced that the mysterious packages were in fact theirs, and they apologized for the misunderstanding.  In the wake of these events, two men are in jail, the mayor of Boston is pissed, the city invested $500,000 to stop the animated menace, and a lot of people feel ridiculous.  But, something else happened on that frightening last day of January – we were introduced to the limits of convergence. 

The media are not boundless.  The intersection between everyday life and entertainment got tangled yesterday.  While for some, it is quite natural to see  fictional narratives extended into social and physical space (either in MySpace or their cell phones), to others, not as tuned to persistent media  streams, these physical tags are still disruptions.  Slight alterations to the physical environment, for a public still reeling from 9/11, can be a significant rupture in the precarious construction of personal safety.   Physical tags, either in the form of ads or messages need to correspond with existing manifestations of normalcy.  Just like in digital space, tags (or ads) are expected to correspond with personal search habits, so in physical space, these tags only work if they perpetuate existing perceptions.

This poses a problem for advertisers who want to interject their message in a complicated stream of messages.  But, it goes to show you that shock ads don’t work in a culture conditioned to smaller and smaller worlds within personalized marketing niches.  Disruption only works when it’s not really a disruption.  Small electronic devices on major infrastructural sites is a disruption.  Do I need to say, duh.