Matt Blaze's
Science, Security, Curiosity
Street artifice
Fear and marketing in Boston

As interested as I am in the human-scale side of security, I suppose I should have strong opinions about last week's unscheduled evacuation drill in Boston. There's plenty to react to, after all: misguided marketing, hair-trigger over-reaction, shameless media pandering, oddball artists, and of course, disingenuous self-justification from all concerned. Yet for all the negligence and ineptitude on display, there doesn't seem to be very much to learn from these mistakes that we didn't already know. More troubling to me is the manipulative con game that triggered the whole spectacle in the first place. And, for a change, this has nothing to do with homeland security or fear mongering. But it strikes at the heart of commerce, culture and trust.  

The details have been widely reported elsewhere, but if you missed it: a few weeks ago, a large movie studio hired a "guerrilla marketing" outfit to place unmarked battery-powered magnetic LED signs around various US cities. They looked sort of like "Lite Brite" toys and displayed an image of a pixelated cartoon character making a rude gesture. Last week, officials in Boston took notice and, for whatever reason, decided the devices might be a part of a terrorist plot. The bomb squad was called in, roads were closed, parts of the city were evacuated. Recriminations, indignation, and apologies followed. And the marketing campaign was a resounding success.

Many commentators have rightly criticized Boston officials and media outlets for repeatedly referring to the stunt as a hoax. That label, they point out, unfairly ascribes a disproportionate share of the blame to the marketers by implying a deceptive intent that does not appear to have been present here. The devices in question, after all, did not look anything like bombs. No sticks of simulated dynamite, ticking sounds, countdown timers, or called-in threats were involved. It was reckless and irresponsible to stealthily attach unauthorized, cryptic ads to the sides of bridges, to be sure, but to have so quickly allowed a bit of electronic graffiti to trigger a full-court panic raises equally serious questions about the good judgement and common sense of the people in charge. At the very least, the magnitude of the response suggests some combination of a hyperactive paranoid imagination, an abundance of passive-aggressive caution and a pent-up desire for all that post-9/11 security machinery to show us its stuff.

And yet a deliberate hoax is precisely what this was. But the deception here was not in the objects themselves, it was in how we were supposed to react to them. They affected a phony outsider's voice to get our attention for what was nothing more than a calculated sales pitch.

Publicity stunts are nothing new, nor is it unusual or inherently suspect for advertisers to hire artists or for artists to seek commercial success. What's distressing is that there is now emerging a class of advertising that, by design, must masquerade as something that it is not. And in doing so, "guerilla marketing" accelerates the demise of the rare and often rich cultural habitats that give unconventional talent room to find themselves and their audiences.

Of course, as consumers become more sophisticated about advertising, advertisers become more sophisticated about inserting their messages into the cultural mix. "Product placements" are a routine part of film and television production today and pro athletes now get paid more to wear logos than to win competitions. But if there's something a bit underhanded or sneaky about this kind of hucksterism, it at least deals directly with the media it exploits. There are built-in limits; a film can presumably only support so many product placements before the audience revolts, and the message only reaches those who see the movie in any case.

Guerilla marketing, in sharp contrast, is inherently parasitic. It attaches itself to the crevices around the mainstream culture -- a freer space traditionally safe only for those with little to lose and something unusual to say. And, as marketers have discovered, it does not impose many inherent limits on how far it can be exploited.

This may not seem like such a bad thing. After all, the voices that usually occupy these cultural cracks -- in graffiti, on posters, on the street, in performance art -- are sometimes unpleasant, incomprehensible, offensive, subversive, or vaguely threatening. But they carry an implicit authenticity that allows us to appreciate them (or not) at face value. The message may be rough, but we trust the medium enough that we can let our guards down and respond viscerally. And occasionally, we are rewarded richly for doing so.

I remember when I first encountered Keith Haring's chalk drawings in the New York City subway in the early 80's. It was possible to respond to them simply and directly -- as a strange, extraordinary vision that someone cared enough about to share in an otherwise dreary, empty space. Haring became hugely successful (both commercially and critically) as a mainstream artist, but his subway work was always exactly what it purported to be: a particular way of seeing, intended to be appreciated solely for it was, emotionally rather than intellectually.

Guerilla advertising works only when it counterfeits the clues that allowed me to experience Keith Haring's chalk posters in a credulous and emotional way. I'd never let myself do that today; I'd just wonder what they were trying to sell or when the movie was coming out. The impact is diminished if I have to question whether Andy Warhol was shilling for Campbell's Soup, or Marcel Duchamp for Armitage-Shanks, but perhaps I will someday need to, just as I must now ask myself whether that email requesting updated account information really came from my bank.

Which, I suppose, brings us back to computer security.