by Jon Palmer
BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — Thirteen years ago, a guerrilla marketing campaign for the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie sent Boston into a panic, shutting down I-93, tying up traffic, and prompting a city-wide law enforcement response.
The campaign involved about three dozen LED-light signs depicting characters from the show flipping the middle finger. Artists Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky worked overnight in mid-January 2007 to place them in hard-to-reach spots around the city, getting $300 each from an ad firm hired by Cartoon Network.
They even put video of them installing the marketing gadgets online.
But a few weeks later, the signs would be misinterpreted as possible bombs, with police saying the gadgets, essentially home-made Lite-Brites, were "suspicious and had components consistent with improvised explosive devices."
On Wednesday, January 31, 2007, The Boston Globe reported, an MBTA worker spotted one of the signs on the I-93 ramp near Sullivan Square around 8 a.m. and notified police. That resulted in the closure of the interstate, creating a traffic mess. A State Police bomb squad then blew the sign apart with a water cannon.
Boston Police officers received assignments at a coordination center on Boston Common, set up to deal with the response to the "suspicious packages." (Getty Images)
Shortly after, several of the other light signs Berdovsky and Stevens placed were discovered across Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville, and a coordination center was set up on Boston Common for authorities to respond to the devices.
It took hours for anyone in government or law enforcement to realize the signs depicted the "Mooninites," characters from the Adult Swim show, and were harmless.
By the end of the day, Berdovsky and Stevens were arrested, "charged under a recently enacted statute making it a crime to place a hoax device that results in panic," CBS reported.
The next day, Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis praised members of the public for alerting the authorities to the "suspicious devices," even though they turned out not to be a threat.
"The Citizens of Boston had their lives disrupted by what turned out to be a misguided publicity stunt," he wrote in a statement. "I recognize that this event caused you to work extra hours, to inconvenience your families and cause them concern. I want to convey my deep appreciation of your dedicated service and my pride in the manner in which the members of this Department responded to this incident."
Many felt the city overreacted in its response, with one person telling NBC News the police actions were "silly and insane." The Boston Globe said the stunt and its response exposed "a wide generation gap" in the city.
Adding to the air of silliness and insanity was Stevens and Berdovsky's press conference, during which they avoided the topic of their charges and talked instead about their hair.
But Boston Mayor Thomas Menino was furious.
"A visibly angry Menino said he would ask the Federal Communications Commission to yank TBS's broadcasting license for what he called 'an outrageous act to gain publicity for their product'," The Boston Globe reported.
So was Gov. Deval Patrick, who said"It's a hoax—and it's not funny."
The whole episode cost Turner Broadcasting System and Interface Inc. a $2 million payment to the Commonwealth to make amends, and led to the ousting of Jim Samples, the head of Cartoon Network.
"I deeply regret the negative publicity and expense caused to our company as a result of this campaign," he wrote in a letter to Cartoon Network employees. "As general manager of Cartoon Network, I feel compelled to step down, effective immediately, in recognition of the gravity of the situation that occurred under my watch."
The "devices," which had been placed in nine other cities, were taken down by authorities after Turner told law enforcement officials where they were—that is, if they hadn't already been removed by fans. One of the signs went up for bid on eBay for $5,000.
Supporters of the artists Sean Stevens and Peter Berdovsky held signs on February 1, 2007 outside Charlestown District Court. (Getty Images)
As for Berdovsky and Stevens, they got off with a plea deal, which saw them performing community service at Spaulding Rehabilitation Center and making a public apology in exchange for authorities dropping charges against them.
The city even hired Berdovsky to create an electronic show for First Night Boston, the Hub's New Year's celebration, six years later.
"We're a forgiving city," then-Boston Mayor Thomas Menino said.