Last month, I wrote a post about my thoughts on viral marketing, and outlined some rules that I felt the companies engaging in the practice would be well advised to follow. As part of that post, I also gave an illustrative example in the form of the recent debacle in Boston. In that incident, Turner Broadcasting hired a marketing company which installed a series of battery-operated signs throughout the city to promote their late-night cartoon show, Aqua Teen Hunger Force. The Boston Police Department, for its own part, decided that they were bombs. Parts of the city were shut down for hours, and one of the signs, which closely resembled a child’s Lite-Brite toy, was destroyed in a controlled detonation.
In my previous post, I took Turner Broadcasting to task for not following my very first rule: Know your audience. Clearly, the concept of leaving electronic devices without explanation, attached to major pieces of civic infrastructure in this day and age is asking for trouble. The ads might have been effective at reaching their intended audience (though the show’s ratings don’t seem to reflect any positive effect), but it neglected the important point that lots of other people, who had never heard of the show and likely wouldn’t watch it if they had, would also see the devices. I said that I found the resulting panic to be absurd, but nevertheless, it was predictable.
At least one person, in the comments on that earlier post felt that I was unfairly taking sides against Turner. Allow me, at this time, to reverse that trend. Regardless of any lack of foresight on the part of Turner Broadcasting (and there was plenty), the City of Boston should be ashamed of itself. This is not actually due to their handling of the incident at the time, which was reactionary and overblown, but nevertheless directed in the interests of public safety. Instead, my switch to outright condemnation results from their handling of several related issues in the aftermath.
First, and perhaps most predictably, the Boston Police Department has arrested Peter Berdovsky, who is another of the people who installed the signs. Two of his “accomplices” were arrested immediately following the security scare, but this new arrest has been longer in coming. Allow me to state explicitly, in case it is not already clear from my tone, that I think prosecuting people under terrorism charges for what they did is a shameful miscarriage of justice. This was, after all, an act which was not actually a threat to life or property and was not even intended to seem like it was.
The second, and in the end, more insidious issue is one of censorship. The City of Boston operates a municipal wi-fi network. Starting earlier today, users attempting to access the blogging and aggregate meta-site Boing Boing are finding themselves blocked from accessing it. The reason for this block appears to be that Boing Boing talks about the ridiculous overreaction of the Boston authorities, and some combination of the phrases they use have been blacklisted.
I hope, with all my heart, that this is some kind of “administrative error”, or the act of an overzealous employee, soon to be reversed. If not, both of these moves on the part of Boston, or its various authorities, are downright childish. Attempts to block out one’s critics by heavy-handed censorship are the kind of thing we in the United States are used to accusing abusive regimes in other nations of doing. Such an act has no place in this or any other country.
Likewise, arresting people on overblown charges seems like an outright attempt to justify shutting down parts of the city for hours. If these people are really terrorists, then it was entirely reasonable for the police to treat their activities like terrorist attacks. I’m sure that the police and the District Attorney in this case will argue that they are simply protecting the people of Boston. Even if the arrests are not motivated by an effort to make themselves look better, they are a travesty. I find it hard to view them in even that favorable a light, however.
This, at last, brings me back to the title of this post. The City of Boston, and its police, made an error in late January. They overreacted, and they were called for it, and made to look like fools. The thing to do in this case is to admit the mistake, apologize for the inconvenience caused, and to look for ways to better respond to similar incidents in the future. Simply turning up the heat on people to make yourself look less foolish not only fails to make you better able to do the right thing, it also compounds the magnitude of your idiotic decisions. The people of Boston deserve better. We all do.