The afternoon of Jan. 31, 2007, was a normal workday for me at Turner Broadcasting.
I was at my desk, with CNN on the TV, fielding emails and phone calls. I barely noticed that the newsroom was covering a bomb scare in Boston.
I was still giving this escalating panic only a fraction of my attention when I answered a call from the head of communications for Cartoon Network, another of our TV properties at Turner. He skipped the niceties: “That’s us.” I had no idea what he meant so he went on: “The bomb scare in Boston. We did that.”
This is the story of how we handled a crisis that tested every aspect of our planning and training—and one of the handful of things I’ve worked on in my career that has its own Wikipedia page.
It’s not every day that a group of cartoon characters sets off a citywide bomb sweep by law enforcement and a feeding frenzy for the world’s largest media outlets. But that’s exactly what my colleague explained we had done with an advertising campaign featuring the Mooninites from the television series Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
Boston public safety officials mistook—for explosive devices—battery-powered LED placards depicting those characters. They did look a little like something MacGyver would have to dismantle, and hundreds of them had been placed in large cities across the U.S. as part of a guerrilla marketing campaign.
We had caused the wrong kind of viral sensation.
Shortly after hearing “That’s