Today in the NY Times, CNN, and news stations across the country you may have heard about bomb scares in Boston that turned out to be guerilla marketing. It’s well known that marketing steals ideas from artists. But the connections are rarely so clear as they are in this case, and we don’t often get to see it backfire in such a spectacular way.
In early 2006, the Graffiti Research Lab began, as it says on their site:
outfitting graffiti writers, artists and protesters with open source tools for urban communication. The goal of the G.R.L. is to technologically empower individuals to creatively alter and reclaim their surroundings from commercial and corporate culture.
A not-for-profit organization, open source, empowering individuals, reclaiming surroundings – these are all great things. The rub with open source is that there is no copyright, no patent, in fact, no license at all. Anyone is free to use, modify, and create with those tools. And sure enough a marketing firm called Interference Inc. saw money in the kernel of a G.R.L. project called the Night Writer.
The G.R.L. Night Writer is done with materials bought at a hardware store. It’s made with cheap LED’s, tape, and magnets. It’s designed to be a low-cost, small scale project with a strong visual impact. It works well, but it takes about an hour to make if you are experienced, work quickly, and have some help. This wouldn’t work for mass production, so Interference Inc built on the idea, adding a custom designed and manufactured circuit board, a photo cell, wiring, resistors, and large D cell batteries. Arguably a better design if you are producing 400 at a time to distribute around the country and you have backing funds from Turner Broadcasting.
The Interference Inc signs were hung in major cities around the US. The marketing firm even documented their work with videos and photos posted on YouTube and Flickr hoping it would “go viral“. Going so far as to editing their videos in the style of the Graffiti Research Lab and citing them as inspiration in the credits – perhaps to gain credibility among street artists and glean off the popularity of the the G.R.L. (Note: at the time of this writing the Flickr photos and youtube video have been pulled by the poster. Fortunately the GRL had archived the video in their own files and reposted it on their site earlier today.)
Again and again, as advertisers desperately try to break through the clutter they create, they try more desperate methods. The perfect irony to this story is that advertisers can’t get it right. What attracted the attention of the bomb squad was the wiring, circuitry, and large batteries that Interference Inc. added to the G.R.L.s original design in order to be more financially efficient. Once it was discovered as harmless, Interfrence’s next problem was the media’s derision because it was yet another desperate attempt to put advertising in front of people’s eyes.
Our posting of the Light Criticism piece last week was fortunate in its timing to say the least. Is there now any doubt that advertising has become the vandalism of the Fortune 500? Each week it becomes more clear in the media that advertising is using illegal methods, yet the fines and arrests remain disproportionately on graffiti writers and activists. We hope more people will see the hypocrisy of arresting, jailing, and fining individual expression of people like BORF, countless street artists, RNC protesters, and cyclists from critical mass, when there has still been zero jail time for CEOs of advertising and marketing firms that knowingly and repeatedly break the law promoting corporate products. Once every permit is approved with the city, and every advertising regulation is being adhered to, when all the corporate graffiti is gone, then begin to go after the individuals.
Tonight Boston police have arrested one person, Peter Berdovsky, a 27 year old “artist.” It’s obvious the guy had less money than conscience and was “in the employ of other individuals.” But it’s early in this tale. Let’s see if Attorney General Coakley gets anywhere near the top of this one. The CEO of Interference Incorporated is Sam Travis Ewen. If anyone sees Ewen in cuffs, I will personally promise to send roses to Attorney General Coakley and a bakers dozen to the Boston P.D.
Berdovsky is claiming it’s art. When someone from an advertising firm is paying you to do something that is their idea, it’s not art.
UPDATE 2/1 11:29pm: The Globe has a new story up. If it wasn’t clear that Berdovsky and Stevens are pawns before, it certainly is now. Also, I may actually have to buy roses and donuts. If Sam Travis Ewen is actually arrested, it will certainly be a first. Some selections:
“The executive [at Interference Inc.] asked Peter Berdovsky to ‘pretty please keep everything on the dl,…’Peter was terrified at this point,’ one friend, Toshi Hoo, said in an interview. ‘He was expecting them to handle it, but they weren’t handling it. They let the entire country stay on terror alert.’
The e-mail suggests that the creators of the marketing blitz were trying to hide their involvement and doing nothing to stop the scare.
Yesterday, Interference’s chief executive, Sam Ewen, hung up when reached on his cellphone and did not respond to e-mails and phone messages. His office in SoHo was locked, and there was no answer at his home in Brooklyn.
Berdovsky told investigators that the two men were each paid $300 to place 40 devices throughout metropolitan Boston, according to a police report filed today in court. Berdovsky had met someone named “John” at a party in Brooklyn, N.Y., in November 2006 who worked for Interference Marketing and asked if he would be interested in helping with a “promotional stunt.” Berdovsky told police he recruited his long-time friend Stevens to help.
The company shipped Berdovsky 40 of the magnetic lights. Adrienne Yee from Interference e-mailed him a list of Do’s and Don’ts. According to the police report, the preferable locations for the devices included: “Train stations, over passes, hip and trendy areas, high traffic areas of high visibility.”