Boston was shut down on Wednesday following the discovery of a “suspicious object” at a T station. Police found several more of the objects, each of which included a circuit board, batteries, and a blockish cartoon figure in LEDs giving the finger. The ensuing bomb scare shut down highways and subways. (There is some indication that another, garden-variety bomb scare also took place Wednesday, and the police conflated the two, leading to terrifying intimations of a massive coordinated something-or-other.)
It then transpired that the figure was a Mooninite, from the Cartoon Network show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and that the devices had been placed as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign for the forthcoming ATHF movie. The show, which stars a milkshake, fries, and ball of meat, is surrealist and frequently plotless; how they’ve stretched it to movie length is beyond me. Given the show’s cult status, the marketing campaign was deliberately oddball, and the Mooninites were to be placed in “areas frequented by students into alternative arts.” The campaign took place in cities nationwide, several weeks ago. Boston is, to date, the only city to wig out.
Police were able to locate the two young men, Peter Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, who installed the Boston Mooninites. They were to be paid $300 each by Interference Inc., which was organizing the promotion on behalf of Turner Broadcasting, the owner of the Cartoon Network. They were arraigned on charges of “possession of a hoax device” and “disorderly conduct.” After the arraignment, the two scapegoats gave a brief press conference in which they treated the situation with appropriately absurdist humor.
I don’t think the two are actually in that much trouble. The hoax device law requires the “intent to cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort,” which they almost certainly didn’t have, They just wanted to market a movie. That was the point. I don’t know for certain, but “disorderly conduct” in the Bay State seems to be charged under Chapter 272, Section 53 of the Massachusetts General Laws, the relevant prong of which would be “disturbers of the peace.” That offense carries a maximum of six months in jail and a $200 fine, making it strictly misdemeanor territory. “Disturbers of the peace” would also seem to give these two fellows a reasonably good vagueness or lenity objection, at least as applied to them, though I haven’t researched Massachusetts caselaw on point.
But leave the precise and lawyerly details aside. The powers that be in Boston, up through and including the mayor and the governor, are ticked off, from being made to look like the fools they are. Panicking at Mooninites is not exactly a sign of wise and sober governance. As at the airport security line, those in authority, being humorless and joyless themselves, fear and hate humor and joy. (Thus, Stevens and Berdovsky’s performance at the press conference, while brilliantly funny, was not the wisest of moves.) I have the sense that cooler heads are unlikely to prevail in the corridors of Bostonian power, and that the orders will be coming down from on high to punish these young men for the stupidity of their elders. (That the Boston press continues to call them “hoaxsters” is a sign of the misdirected anger still boiling in Beantown. There was no “hoax;” no one was ever supposed to think that anything remotely terrifying was taking place.)
Which brings me to my point.
If Turner Broadcasting, on whose behalf all of this was done, has any conscience, then it will fund the legal defense of its two hapless Mooninite Men. Turner and Interference were the entities here that could see the whole picture, and that should have been aware of the possibilities that some humorless dolts might take things the wrong way. I approve of randomness and whimsy in day-to-day-life, and I don’t think that Turner and Interference did anything seriously wrong. But given the risks attendant on this sort of marketing, if someone has to take the fall—or to pay the legal fees to avoid taking the fall—it should not be Stevens and Berdovsky, who did a silly job well and have since handled themselves with panache. Dealing with prosecutions from those who don’t get the joke is a marketing cost, and it should be treated that way, just as IBM paid to clean up its Peace, Love, Linux stencils on the streets of San Francisco. If it were an executive in the dock, you know that the corporate checkbook would be open already.
If, on the other hand, Turner has no conscience and does not look after its own … well, then, it will be incumbent on the rest of us to boycott the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. The show’s appeal is cult; the movie’s is, too. The entire marketing campaign was designed to appeal to people with a taste for the surreal. Turner, you were reaching out to us with this Mooninite marketing. We recognize ourselves in Sean and Peter. If you are not with our brothers, we will not be with you. If you turn your back on them now, we will know that you see us just as a narrowcast demographic, and not people with whom one might share a joke. If you shirk your responsibility, then you had best start preparing for empty seats when the movie opens, because you will have just irrevocably alienated the very group to whom you were trying to hype it.
The ball is in your court, Turner. You know what’s the right thing to do.