BOSTON — In nine cities across the country, blinking electronic signs displaying a profane, boxy-looking cartoon character caused barely a stir.
But in Boston, the signs — some with protruding wires — sent a wave of panic across the city, bringing out bomb squads and prompting officials to shut down highways, bridges and part of the Charles River.
Something that may have been amusing in other cities was not funny to authorities here, the city that served as the base for the hijackers who carried out the Sept. 11 attacks. Officials defended their reaction Thursday even as two men charged in the case, and some residents, mocked the response as overblown.
Young Bostonians familiar with the unconventional marketing tactics used by many companies tended to see the city’s reaction as unmitigated hysteria.
Tracy O’Connor, 34, a retail manager, called the police response “silly and insane,” contrasting it with that in other cities where no one reported concerns about the devices — an advertising gimmick for the Cartoon Network show “Aqua Teen Hunger Force.”
“We’re the laughingstock,” she said.
Public safety officials and a large segment of Boston’s older generation condemned the publicity campaign as unthinkable in today’s post-9/11 world.
Official defends reaction
“Just a little over a mile away from the placement of the first device, a group of terrorists boarded airplanes and launched an attack on New York City,” police Commissioner Edward Davis said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“The city clearly did not overreact. Had we taken any other steps, we would have been endangering the public,” he said.
Davis said that as calls were coming in about the electronic signs in rapid succession Wednesday afternoon, police also received reports of two devices that resembled pipe bombs and had a confirmed report of a man walking down the hallways of New England Medical Center making a rambling speech about “God getting us today” and “This would be a sorry day.”
Davis, who took his job in December, said he didn’t know of any calls coming in to the Boston 911 line.
Officials found 38 blinking electronic signs on bridges, a subway station, a hospital, Fenway Park and other high-profile spots in and around the city.
In New York, officers went to the various locations and found only two of the devices — both attached to a highway overpass. Police said it did not appear any landmarks such as the subway, Empire State Building or Brooklyn Bridge were targeted.
“People can be smug and say all you have to do is look at this and know this is not an explosive device, but the truth of the matter is that you can’t tell what it is until it’s disrupted,” Davis said.
Officials have vowed to hold responsible Turner Broadcasting Inc., the parent company of the Cartoon Network, which airs the series about a talking milkshake, a box of fries and a meatball.
Two men who authorities say were paid to place the devices around the city pleaded not guilty Thursday to placing a hoax device and disorderly conduct. Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28, were released on $2,500 cash bond — apparently amused by the situation, even though they face up to five years in prison.
They met reporters and TV cameras and launched into a nonsensical discussion of hairstyles of the 1970s. As they walked off, Berdovsky gave a more serious comment.
“We need some time to really sort things out and, you know, figure out our response to this situation in other ways than talking about hair,” Berdovsky said.
No concern in other cities
The devices didn’t prompt calls of concern in any of the nine other cities where Turner said the devices were placed. Police in the other cities fanned out to find and remove them after Boston’s scare.
Some enterprising people got to the devices before police: At least seven were for sale Thursday afternoon on the Internet auction site eBay, ranging in price from $500 to $2,100.
Most of Boston’s colleagues in law enforcement in the other cities chose their words carefully.
“I wouldn’t want to give my opinion, but in today’s world it’s better safe than sorry. Someone (in Boston) clearly thought there was a threat,” Atlanta police Officer Joe Cobb said.
In the Seattle area, authorities thought the devices were “obviously not suspicious.”
“In this day and age, whenever anything remotely suspicious shows up, people get concerned — and that’s good,” King County sheriff’s Sgt. John Urquhart said. “However, people don’t need to be concerned about this. These are cartoon characters giving the finger.”
Tobe Berkowitz, an advertising professor at Boston University, said it’s easy to understand why there is a generational gap between the way the target audience for the promotional campaign reacted and the way older Bostonians reacted.
“For people who are hip and live in the world of blogs and all sorts of cool alternative media, it’s one thing,” he said. “But for the rest of us ... they don’t get it as a marketing or a clever event, they see it as a huge disruption of their lives.”
Publicity stunt approved by Cartoon Network
The publicity campaign was conceived by the Adult Swim marketing department and approved by the head of the Cartoon Network, Turner spokeswoman Shirley Powell said Thursday. She said the devices had been up for two weeks around the country and the network had not received any calls about them.
“We were simply promoting a TV show,” she said. “If we had ever perceived this to be something threatening safety, we would never have proceeded with it.”
The network told the marketing company to decide where the devices should be placed, with the mandate they should be in places likely to be seen by young men. Adult Swim’s target audience is men aged 18 to 24.
The marketing company that placed the signs, Interference Inc. of New York City, did not return calls seeking comment and its offices were closed Thursday.
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