Who Hates Guerilla Marketing in Boston? (Updated again)

Globe FullToday 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.

Night WriterThe 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.

Attorney GeneralTonight 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.

UPDATE: Police have arrested another pawn employee, Sean Stevens, 28. Word is that CEO, Sam Travis Ewen is out of town until Thursday.

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.”

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  1. ian c
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    i can’t tell whether you think this is ultimately brilliant culturejamming or something worthy of arrests, fines, contempt, etc. which is it? would you have loved to pull something like this off, or not? and come on, this is the most amazing free marketing, ever, and it was done by some third-tier buffoons faux-evangelizing a tv show (that just happens to be one of your favorites!)!

    also, a couple blog posts i’ve read have pointed out how ridiculous (oop, may be down but you can find the post/link ,a href=”http://atrios.blogspot.com/2007_01_28_atrios_archive.html#117034015357532318″>here; atrios also has shake at the top of the page) the scale and impact of the police response to this campaign was.

  2. Posted February 1, 2007 at 10:18 am | Permalink

    Ian, it’s not brilliant culture jamming, it’s advertising co-opting graffiti and street art culture. Ultimately, no one should go to jail for this kind of thing, but as long as police departments continue to fine, arrest, and jail individuals, and let the companies off with minor fines and no jail time, I’m calling it a double standard.

  3. ian c
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    i think it’s pretty brilliant if it can confound the police department of a major US city. and who pays their dues to the street culture co-opt bureau? i thought street culture was fluid, ever-changing, and many-tentacled, not some sort of walled-in cultural orthodoxy.

  4. Anonymous
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    I agree that there is a double standard, but I can’t say I’m a fan of the attack on the “pawn employees”. I this editorial fails to take into account the creative freedom afforded to those creating ad campaigns. Are you really certain that Turner Broadcasting was paying them “to do something that is their idea”, rather than just saying “create a viral campaign for us?”.

    There’s also far more back and forth when it comes to street art and advertising. It’s true “marketing steals ideas from artists,” but guess what: artists steal ideas from marketing too. In spite of your assertion that he’s not an artist, there are plenty of artists who work in adverstising.

    In any case they seem to have a better sense humour than the “they’re not artists because they’re not following our rules” type of pedantry that’s being presented in this editorial.

    “At a news conference after the hearing, Stevens and Berdovsky stepped to the microphones and said they were taking questions only about 1970s hairstyles.

    When a reporter accused them of not taking the situation seriously, Stevens responded, “We’re taking it very seriously.” Asked another question about the case, Stevens reiterated they were answering questions only about hair and accused the reporter of not taking him and Berdovsky seriously.”

  5. Posted February 1, 2007 at 2:15 pm | Permalink


    I am certain the the two men that were arrested were not the idea men behind the campaign, they are merely the workers who hung the signs. And I am not saying it was Turner’s idea either. We’ll see if I am wrong, but I am fairly certain the man behind the campaign is Sam Travis Ewen, the CEO of InterFerence Inc.

    Also, as I said before about the arrestees, in their off-time they may be artists, they may even be great artists, but what they did here is not art.

    Yes it is true that artists work in advertising, but when an artist is working for a company, promoting that company’s product, it is not their art. (I understand everyone has different ideas of what art is, but I don’t consider marketing campaigns as art.)

  6. benjamin
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    I heard the lady on the news say that this was a sign that we need to examine what responsible advertising is. i agree.

  7. Neagle
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    What kicked in the panic in Boston while other locals handled the situation in an effective manner?

    *”Police in Chicago and Seattle said they rounded up about 20 of the devices in each city but made no arrests. Police in Portland, Oregon said the signs there looked harmless.

    “It appears that there was no intent to commit a crime, so the Portland Police Bureau has no reason to investigate,” said Brain Schmautz, spokesman for the Portland Police Bureau. ”

    Was it the placement of the signs or an over sensitive environment of fear that just took a spark to light? It’s a shame that it took a major marketing stunt to point out what may be the heart of the BORF cause. Americans, we have to chill out before we loose it all to something stupid.

    *SITE: http://today.reuters.com/news/articlenews.aspx?type=domesticnews&storyID=2007-02-01T203331Z_01_N31216023_RTRUKOC_0_US-SECURITY-BOSTON.xml&pageNumber=2&imageid=&cap=&sz=13&WTModLoc=NewsArt-C1-ArticlePage2

  8. jack haas
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 9:03 pm | Permalink

    i saw one of these signs last week (in seattle), thinking it as cool indie pop art — so easy to tell it was a light. unfortunately i didn’t see it on my return trip in the evening.

    thanks for pointing out the hypocrisy of past/current punishments, with which i agree that it is a double standard that needs to go away (nobody should be charged for “crimes” of advertising).

    while i agree with your mission statement, i wholly disagree with your elitist, holier than thou snobbish attitude as displayed in this post regarding art vs. advertising. one part of art is an advertisement of its painter? sure, art isn’t pervasive unless you want to include architecture, interior design, etc. iow, we’re surrounded by creative human expression in every city and nearly every environment. that the urban environment includes advertising? big whoop. grow up. i wish there was less advertising, too, but i also wish there were less ugly buildings and bridges. i wish we all lived underground and were transported from point a to b like in star trek. but that ain’t the world. and because the first amendment protects speech, then i gladly accept advertising. even in all its ugly forms.

    art is an expression — nothing more, nothing less. how you perceive it is your pleasure/problem.

  9. reid bingham
    Posted February 1, 2007 at 11:23 pm | Permalink

    Jack Haas, I can tell from your line “nobody should be charged for “crimes” of advertising” you’re missing the point entirely. Your “big whoop grow up” attitude is just the act of a close minded fearful person, just writing off people who are critical of the society, and who really want to change their world for the better. That “real world” “face the facts” mentality is not only what allows there to be all these double standards in the world, but also what makes people who feel to powerless, lazy, or scared to do anything about it, feel better about themselves when confronted with a critical viewpoint to their life style. You can make jokes about all those poor suckers who “wish” this country wasn’t so fucked up. You can tell as many activists as you like to grow up and call everyone who disagrees with you elitist, but I just hope that next time you try and put someone down to feel better about yourself, you realize these people are not wishing. They are doing, acting, thinking, and changing. You may wish for whatever weird underground world you want, but the people who are really making a difference out there aren’t wasting their time.

  10. Posted February 2, 2007 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    iPods are to Big Macs as naked electronics are to blood-spattered cow intestines: both relations involve a lot of consumer ignorance and denial.

    So when one encounters the real thing on a city street, the response is likely fear.

  11. jeebs
    Posted February 2, 2007 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Incompetence on a grand scale by the city of Boston and this inane blog blames Interference Inc.!? Get a brain and get real. Things that light-up and look like cartoons and that are purposely *meant to catch the public’s attention as a marketing device* are pretty clearly not bombs. Not to mention that Boston’s response came after weeks of the campaign’s initial launch as it had in other cities much, much larger than Boston!? Criticism should squarely land on the city’s shoulders and the media should take some responsibility to make sure a small marketing firm does not besome a scapegoat for a very important public issue: the ineptitude of a major U.S. city in a post Sept. 11th world. Word. Coakley should be impeached for wasting time and taxpayer money for what amounts to a huge gaffe by Boston police and Mass homeland security. Interference Inc. CEO should be given an award for exposing such waste and inept public service.

  12. Posted February 3, 2007 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    I do hope the bribe Turner is offering doesn’t end this. I chatted one night with a guy who ran one of the street crew intermediaries — mostly low level stuff, wheat paste and posters. His father was an exec in an ad agency. So it was all very convenient. Middle class kid moves to Williamsburg (even getting a loft at the notorious 184 Kent), has daddy feed him work that buys him street cred. Just like we all expect.

    What I pressed him on, though, was the paperwork. In order to an agency to bill (these are, after all publicly traded companies, and revenue has to be booked, and believe me, if you’ve ever seen the requirements pushed on the subsidiary agencies by the ad networks, everything is documented), they need to list deliverables somewhere. And expense them, etc (as a side note, did anyone else look at this and go “$300? For that? Man is Ewen screwing the help”; no wonder they can’t afford a haircut).

    I assumed they managed to keep some sort slush fund in cash, to provide a cut out. But as they campaigns grow, it gets hard to hide the outlay (and, presumably, the agencies want paperwork in case a client decides to stiff them).

    This guy said everything was documented. No ‘go do something viral’ (believe me, anyone spending ad money would think this is an invite to pay for a bunch of coke buying sprees without any measurable evidence). All sorts of indemnification and legal this and that.

    Somewhere these is paperwork on this. The regular presence in the media of the end labor (the ‘artists’) is because they are probably on a work-for-hire/contractor agreement, with an NDA. Turner’s specialist PR damage folks are shaping the language to keep it focused on that (look at the CNN coverage versus Fox).

    I really want to see that paperwork. Because it’s one thing to go after someone who gets the half cocked idea to put something on a bridge that looks vaguely bomb like to someone driving by at highway speeds. And if it’s your garden variety street artist, they get snapped up by the cops right quick. If Sam, or someone at Turner signed anything authorizing this, why isn’t there a conspiracy charge being prepped?

    Think of the contract language. In order to insure they got an effective media buy, it had to specify placement in highly trafficked areas. And they seem to have targeted areas with vehicle traffic (in NY one was near the Lincoln Tunnel entrance in the 30s). We’ve all seen the signs saying if you put anything on the Brooklyn Bridge you get arrested. Do you get arrested if you hire someone to? I think so.

  13. Posted February 3, 2007 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    I’m sorry, but this is a silly distinction. A cartoon is art. A movie is art. A poster advertising that cartoon or movie is advertising and thus not art, even though it may in fact be very artistic. But what if that poster is simply a representation of one of the characters and is made using cutting-edge media applications? And why do people buy posters advertising products from companies that went out of business a hundred years ago and hang them on the wall? It’s not for the brand cache, it’s because of the art.

    Berdovsky is an artist who got a job hanging someone else’s artwork which was commissioned as part of a viral marketing program. His friend Stevens, who’s computer savvy, was doing it as well. I think it’s a fair bet they were planning to use some of the same techniques to make their own artwork.

    I object to the obnoxious peddle-you-shit advertising as much as the next person, but if an ad is beautiful or quirky or anything else that engages my interest and makes me happy, then I’m all for it.

  14. jsh1980
    Posted February 11, 2007 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    And the graffiti tactics used by guerrilla marketers really defeat the explaination of graffiti justified as public art in the first place (meaning it is a work by and for a private enterprise rather than by and for the public). “According to many art researchers, particularly in the Netherlands and in Los Angeles, that type of public art is, in fact an effective tool of social emancipation or in the achievement of a political goal.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graffiti http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_art) If graffiti is just another advertising tactic then there is no real excuse to use property without paying for it. It becomes even more explicitly a form of vandalism- a use of property for proprietary purposes without compensation.

    This is all just my opinion. I’m sure that there are many people who see a world of all advertisements as paradise or really do enjoy being advertized to. Guerilla marketing seems new and fresh now but if consumers embrace it then everyone will begin using it. I can imagine how anoying guerrilla ad spam might be. It probably won’t seem novel and fun in mass quantities.

  15. kmanon
    Posted February 17, 2007 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    it was hilarious. smart. dramatic. deep down inside you all wish you had come up with the idea. it is art. open your minds people. art can not be confined to your traditional ways. art is huge. you limit it and the world stays the same, no growth, no challenge, no life. but i’m sure living in the expected is ok for you. not for me.

  16. makemoneynotart
    Posted February 28, 2007 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    what’s the point of being “anti-advertising agencies”?
    not everyone have the luck to live on charity, most people have to work, really. why aren’t you guys anti-poverty or anti-illiteracy or anti-child abuse? not cool enough?
    throwing leds and batteries on walls is changing the world? how so? i don’t get it.

    Posted February 28, 2007 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    So, GRL pays for their trips and their waste with, guess what, EVIL MONEY.

    “Eyebeam’s programs are made possible through the generous support of Atlantic Foundation, TIME WARNER Youth Media and Arts Fund […] the SONY Corporation, Alias Systems, Inc. and the Milton and Sally Avery Foundation.

  18. Posted February 28, 2007 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    If you don’t understand the point of calling into question the corporate messages that dominate our public spaces through advertising I’m not sure I will be able to help you much in the comment thread of a blog post. If you don’t understand the broader ramifacations that advertising has on consumerism and the rest of our culture – affecting things such as poverty and education – I suggest you read more of our site and check out the links. If you don’t understand how questioning the messages in advertising and creating a dialog in public spaces (rather than simply receiving and accepting the 5,000 sales messages we recieve per day) is changing the world, again I am not sure what I can say.

    As far as the GRL, please contact them with your criticisms of their work. Regarding “evil money,” first let me correct you, the OpenLab is primarily funded by the MacArthur Foundation. The AAA (a seperate organization that has collaborated with the GRL) is funded by the Creative Work Fund. Regardless, are you suggesting that using grant money affects the content of our work? That it delegitimizes our message? Should we not accept grant money? Should we switch to a donation system? Please explain your point.

11 Trackbacks

  • […] An arrest has been made in the Boston Terror Advert Mind Shred of 2007. Read about it here. No it’s not a VP at Turner Broadcasting, the president of the ad agency or the CEO of the marketing company. It’s the 27 year-old artist who was hired to stick the ads up. Turns out the corporation is real sorry about all this and had a cartoon say so on the TV. Probably not as sorry as the guy being hauled-off in cuffs. […]

  • By Stay Free! Daily on February 1, 2007 at 8:57 am

    Marketing Bomb

    Just last week I wrote about the latest public project of the Graffiti Research Lab the Anti-Advertising Agency. I said latest because these guys have done their share of projects. So, what happens when you put the tools of a small, independent guerill…

  • By NYPD Eradicates Aqua Team Hunger Force at on February 1, 2007 at 2:58 pm

    […] Hmm. Let’s go to the last line of The Anti-Advertising Agency’s editorial: “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.” The Graffiti Research Lab also says that this ploy is not their work: “It’s Just more mindless corporate vandalism from a guerilla marketer who got busted. Interference Inc, welcome to the world of being misunderstood, scapegoated, demonized and wanted by the law. Still wanna be a graffiti artist?” […]

  • […] Meanwhile, the Anti-Advertising Agency continues to try and construct a brick wall between Artists and Advertisers and is calling for the lynching of Interference Inc. CEO Sam Ewen, who prefers a short hairstyle cut close around the ears but longer on top like Morrissey. –> […]

  • By murketing » Blog Archive » And the winner is… on February 2, 2007 at 9:36 am

    […] Berdovsky himself has apparently said regarding the marketing materials he was paid to distribute: “This is a piece of art and installation.” (Steve Lambert of The Anti Advertising Agency is the only commentator I’m aware of who has said flatly: “When someone from an advertising firm is paying you to do something that is their idea, it’s not art.” (Not that I’m suggesting he agrees with my point of view here; probably not.)) […]

  • By homeX » I Didnt Do It. on February 3, 2007 at 4:55 am

    […] Home X has made the press once again. This time Home X hunk, and first-responder, Todd Vanderlin has bested the Dept. Of Homeland Security in his ever-vigilant war on terror in Boston. Initial investigations pointed a finger at Todd, Makezine.com and even the beloved GRL. Makers should follow this story as it evolves as it stands to set a precedent for electronics hobbyists, hackers and culture jammers. Especially those who work in public spaces. It’s relevant to our class as it highlights a socially constructed aspect of technology that engineers often disregard: the publics perception of in-situ technology. And public techno-literacy (i.e. can you tell a bomb from a blinkie?). This is a very cool and relevant article on Steve Lambert’s Anti-Advertising Agnecy blog about the interpretation of technology by the mases in public places. Note that the press decided to cover this story with more vigor than the troop surge in Iraq, the presidential race, Joe Biden’s racist comments and the Libby Trial. Yuck right? […]

  • By Wild Sound » The Real Terrorist Threat on February 6, 2007 at 11:27 am

    […] According to Graffiti Research Lab and its offshoot, the Anti-Advertising Agency, those cartoon lite brites are an example of corporate, not political terrorism: […]

  • […] Rien à voir avec les récents événements de Boston provoqués par des pseudos street artists. Cest beau! Graffiti Artistes Filed under Uncategorized having Leave a Comment […]

  • […] la verdad es que hacen cosas buenas pero desarrollar una campaña tan orientada a confundir empleando los códigos de grl en sus videos (música, estilo, títulos, etc.) ha puesto en tela de juicio la honradez de la compañía además de facilitar unas vacaciones con todos los gastos pagados, a cargo del gobierno, a mas de un directivo de la misma. […]

  • […] Trying to combat the “axis of evil (corporations, advertisers, marketers),” G.R.L. and the Anti-Advertising Agency, wonder if Interference.inc, the marketing company responsible for all this, is enjoying being wanted by the police. G.R.L. and A.A.A., who recently began an anti-advertising campaign called Light Criticism, recommend that the true criminals be arrested rather than the poor, misguided artists. […]

  • […] the TV. Probably not as sorry as the guy being hauled-off in cuffs.” From GRL Read some more here. Tags: athf, Boston, Video Filed under: Randomness — MÃ¥nsteri @ […]

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