Ah, to be a fly on the wall in the marketing meeting at the Cartoon Network that day. It must have been like watching a train-wreck about to happen.

“Ok, so we have this cartoon show we want to advertise. What do you think is the best way to do it?”

“I know, I know… how about we advertise it by designing a plastic box that lights up, and has a battery and some wires protruding from it.”


“Then we’ll place them on the infrastructure in a major city.”


“And we’ll make sure that major city is probably - other than New York City - one of the cities most devastated by the 9/11 attacks.”


“Wait… wait… it gets better. And to top it off, we’ll hire two kids who maybe even look a little like anarchists, to place the devices. And if we’re really lucky, they’ll get arrested and act like buffoons in front of the media.”


What resulted from that meeting was every marketer’s absolute worst nightmare: a promotion gone terribly wrong. The marketing campaign for the Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force paralyzed a major city, resulted in a $2 million fine, put two people in jail and one high-level network executive out of a job. It also brought the term guerilla marketing to the forefront of America’s consciousness.


The term, coined in 1983 by Jay Conrad, is best described as unconventional advertising which pretty much pushes the envelope. Anything from handing out leaflets on a street corner, to dressing up like a giant hot dog, to bungee jumping off a small building; all in the name of promoting a product, an event, a service, whatever.

When done correctly and with precise planning, it can be extremely effective, such as the guerilla marketing firm that placed signs around cities looking for missing socks, all used to publicize a Sci-Fi Channel TV show about the Bermuda Triangle. But when it’s not well planned-out, the results, as we saw in Boston, can be devastating.

Guerilla marketing can be tricky because unlike traditional advertising, the whole idea is to invade someone’s personal space or, to use the popular term, “get in their face.” With traditional advertising, the consumer makes the decision to open that newspaper, turn on that radio, or click on that TV station.

Very few consumers make the conscious decision to have someone dressed like a giant magenta-colored iPod hand them a discount coupon on a busy street corner. And this is where the Cartoon Network took a fatal wrong turn said one marketing expert, “They crossed the line and caused serious trouble for their brand by not considering human fears and the political climate we find ourselves in.”

Or as one newspaper scribe pointed out, “The Cartoon Network focused too much on its target audience (college kids) and had blinders on when it came to the rest of the public. Maybe the target of this product could appreciate the batteries-taped-to-a-Lite-Brite look of the signs. But since they were going to be in front of a mass market audience with nothing to identify the product, the signs looked like something improvised and dangerous.”

Although its roots lie in being unconventional, to be successful, guerilla marketing has to follow some pretty simple rules:

Be relevant to your audience. Handing out flyers for a Michael Bolton concert at a biker convention is probably a waste of your time, and theirs.

Quality not quantity. When your street team shows up at a mall and sees thousands of people they may be excited, until they realize it’s senior citizen day and the crowd probably has no idea who the punk band “Chainsaw Children” are, nor do they care about 2-for-1 night at the local club.

Use good timing. If you are doing a free cup of coffee promotion, chances are the reaction will be more favorable at 8 a.m. as opposed to 8 p.m.

Most important - leave it to the professionals! The professionals know what they are doing. They have the know-all, contacts, and resources to make the campaign successful. A good promotional agency will also have backup and contingency plans in place to handle the what-if’s that can surely arise.

The Cartoon Network blunder does not toll the death bell for guerilla marketing. As long as a high-level marketing executive continues to think out-of-the-box and has access to a million dollar advertising budget, or a college student masters a desktop publishing program and has access to a small account at the local copy center, guerilla marketing will continue to be a part of our advertising mainstream, even when it goes wrong.


Commenting on the Boston debacle, Massachusetts’ congressman Ed Markey stated, “It would be hard to dream up a more appalling publicity stunt.”

Try telling that to these companies:

April 2001:IBM launches a spray-painting campaign on city sidewalks. The company is fined by San Francisco $120,000 for vandalism.

October 2002:MSN is ordered to remove thousands of butterfly decals it posted around New York City.

June 2005:Snapple floods Union Square in New York with kiwi-strawberry flavored juice after a 25-foot-tall promotional Popsicle suddenly melts.

April 2006: Paramount Pictures promotes its film “Mission Impossible III” by havingLos Angeles Timesnewspaper racks blare out the film’s theme song when opened. People mistake the devices for bombs causing the evacuation of a nearby medical center and prompting the bomb squad to destroy one of the racks.

Publication Date:12/10/2007