Boston police fail to recognise urban trends

Boston police spent several man-hours, and more than a few bomb squad detectives, on defusing an advertising campaign.


Here’s MSNBC’s take on the story.


I love the sub-title: “Officials seek restitution for publicity campaign that sparked terrorism fears”.


How about “City seeks restitution for waste of time by security ‘experts’ who can’t spot an emerging urban fad and distinguish it from real terrorism”?


There’s nothing marketers like more than successfully convincing the public that the thing they’re marketing is the new cool thing, and is loved by people at large.


It’s been so successful an approach that the term “viral marketing” has been coined. You see companies making commercials that are designed to be emailed around, generating a “buzz”, and you see numerous stories of companies using various different kinds of graffiti in order to give the impression that a young, hip crowd are interested in the product being advertised. Occasionally people get in trouble as a result, because the graffiti is more permanent than is expected:


IBM graffiti ads gain notoriety – IBM paid to spray icons for “Peace, love and Linux” around Chicago, but accidentally forgot to specify that the spray used be a chalk that washes off in the rain.


“Moose” cleans surfaces to create ‘reverse graffiti’ – some stunning examples of what happens if you let a surface get really dirty, and an artist with a crazy idea comes along. His local city council wants to arrest him and charge him with ‘vandalism’.


And another recent trend in urban graffiti – non-destructive, and highly visual, “LED Throwies” are a cheap way to paint a bridge or a metal wall with light and colour.


So, how did Boston’s police manage not to have anyone on staff who recognised the characters from Cartoon Network’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force? [Or even, an officer who happens to comment that he's seen that exact same character on children's T-shirts when he visits schools?]


How did they not have anyone on staff who said “oh, that’s probably just a big LED throwie”?


I realise that, to a certain extent, you have to investigate stuff that is new and different in case it’s new and dangerous – but it seems that there is too much of a concern over this. Remember, that’s part of my job, too – to investigate the extraordinary in case it’s a security incident – but you have to be smart enough to know when it’s just the latest sign of an emerging trend. I’d quickly be in trouble if I ran around raising alarm bells saying that our records on gynaecological exams were being published, on the basis of an employee visiting a porn site from work.


Would the same effort be expended if, say, a marketing company left a bunch of cassette players – boom boxes – on street corners, playing a catchy jingle? Same components – batteries, wires, electronics, blinky lights, advertising message – but we’re comfortable with the fact that a cassette player is a known object.


I don’t think the media in this case is paying enough attention to “how could Boston’s police be so clueless as to urban trends and popular culture to place such a stress on this being a likely explosive device?”

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