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What Search Can Learn from the Aqua Teen Fiasco February 5, 2007

Posted by Bill in Outdoor advertising, Search Marketing, traditional advertising.

You probably already know the facts by now, but I’ll give them to you anyway…

To promote its late-night show Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Cartoon Network  placed light-up signs of one of the show’s characters in surprising but noticeable spots throughout several US cities. Boston was one of those cities.

In Boston, terrorism-suspicious passersby saw the signs placed in sensitive areas—like bridges and overpasses—and called the police. Cartoon Networks, which is owned by Turner Broadcasting, neglected to mention to the police that they had put the signs up. Mayhem ensued.

Bomb squads came out. A major highway and a portion of the Charles River were closed off. The two men who placed the signs were arrested. And now the city of Boston is calling for heads to roll at Turner, and for Turner to foot the $750,000 bill for the day’s antiterror precautions.

Something like this was bound to happen, as the public has long been on tense relations with outdoor marketing. Mini Cooper’s supertargeted opt-in billboard campaign, which displays birthday wishes and other extremely targeted greetings to Mini drivers, has been criticized by driver safety groups as a distraction. An LA billboard for shoe inserts was removed over complaints around its tagline, “Shoe-icide is not the answer!” In San Francisco, a “Got Milk” outdoor display was yanked after groups took issue with the smell (it smelled like cookies).

Outdoor advertising is a lightning rod, for the very same reason that it’s so powerful. Outdoor and out-of-home advertising weave themselves, literally, into your life’s landscape. They’re with you when you look out from your car window, when you’re waiting for the bus, or when you’re in the elevator. They integrate brands into your life.

But injecting yourself in people’s lives is bound to rub some people the wrong way. Somebody’s bound to think your joke isn’t funny, that you’re creating a nuisance (which you very well might be), or that you’re engaged in a bomb plot. And there lies the conundrum of outdoor.

For those of us in search, there’s a cautionary lesson in this. Like outdoor, search is also built around injecting your brand into the ebb and flow of real life—as, at this point in the 21st Century, search has become one of life’s basic tasks. Until now, we search marketers have avoided the unpredictability that’s haunted outdoor advertisers, because our control over keywords lists gives us immense control over who sees our ad, and how.

And we still have that control. But at the same time, times are changing. Search is becoming more deeply integrated into other types of media, and different types of media are diverging in more directions every day. Keyword lists just aren’t the only factor involved in dealing with who sees a campaign. Suddenly, we all need to consider the unique problems of search traffic off of MySpace—or even, as David Berkowitz points out, from Second Life. And as contextual advertising evolves into search-based retargeting, part of every search campaign will involve display advertising on publisher sites.

Which means that, as search gets more sophisticated, search is weaving itself into many people’s lives in many different ways than it ever has. It’s becoming less like old-fashioned search, and closer, in some ways, to outdoor advertising.

As that transition happens, we’ll see a real turning point in the search industry. Those of us who are as good at understanding who’s looking at an ad, and how to relate to that viewer—by making one landing page for searchers off of MySpace, and a different one for searchers off of Yahoo! Financial, for instance—will continue to thrive as we always have.

But those of us who can’t relate to the newly-diverse search audience will face the same challenges faced by the outdoor industry in terms of dealing with the viewer they couldn’t have foreseen. And being in the online industry is going to make those shortcomings even harder to surmount, since clients are willing to forgive outdoor agencies for a lack of precision, but expect a lot more precision from online firms.

If you’re in the first group of search marketers, then you’re probably in a good place right now. If you’re in the second group, then you might want to really rethink your approach.



1. aquabot - September 27, 2007

The thing that gets me is that that blew some of them up even after they knew they were harmless, that is a waste of money, I can understand wanting to be paid back the cost of the whole thing, but not the cost of wasting money blowing something up that was deemed to be harmless in the first place. And the fact that they were up for a few weeks before anyone noticed well dont get me started on that. I don’t think it was their intention to cause panic or anything of the sort. The law enforcement are the ones to blame for the panic. They handled the whole thing without any kind of grace or common sense. I don’t believe that they are trained properly. Especially compared to how the other cities handled it. As far as the people of boston go, well I don’t think any less of them, its not their fault that their city officials and law enforcement don’t know how to handle these types of situations. Of course all of this could’ve been avoided completely if they(pr people) would have alerted the cities ahead of time about what they were going to do. Of course they probably would not have been allowed to do it in the first place in which case I would not have had the stress relief of a damn good laugh at boston’s expense.

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