Sunday, February 11, 2007

'Toon Terror

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I begin this week's column with a correction.

In last week's column about Fox News' gullibility in picking up and running with a dubious tale about how U.S. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois supposedly attended a radical Muslim "madrassa" as a youth in Indonesia, I noted that at the time Obama would have been there, "Indonesia's radical Muslim movement had been brutally suppressed by the Suharto government."

In fact, the Darul Islamist movement had been broken up by Suharto's predecessor, President Sukarno. Suharto was no contender for the Nobel Peace Prize, mind you, but I do like to get my brutal Asian dictators right.

Anyway, on to this weeks' question, which is: What the heck is wrong with Boston? Don't get me wrong, I've got good friends in Boston. It's a lovely place. But they seem to be a little quick on the panic button up there. Last week, the whole city practically went into lockdown over a bunch of boxes with cartoon characters on them.

To explain this story, first we have to delve into the weird and wacky world of modern animated entertainment.

It seems that Cartoon Network has a wildly popular show called "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." ATHF, as it's known, doesn't have much to do with water or teenagers. It features -- get this -- talking food. One of the characters is a meatball with arms. Another is a floating box of French fries with a goatee. A third is a human-sized milkshake.

I looked up some clips from this show online, and I have to tell you, it's really, really weird. And you're talking to someone with a high threshold of weird. Have I mentioned that researching this column made me feel extremely old?

Anyway, among the characters on the show are little villainous critters called Mooninites who are, as the name implies, from the moon. They're crudely drawn, two-dimensional and blocky. They look, in fact, like something from one of the earliest Atari video games. They smoke cigarettes, make rude gestures, and steal stuff because, they explain, they're too advanced for human rules.

I know, I didn't get it either. But I'm thinking that you and I are not in ATHF's target demographic. Me, I'm a more of a Roadrunner/Bugs Bunny kind of guy.

Turner Broadcasting, which owns Cartoon Network, decided it would be fun to promote the show by putting Mooninites in public places. So they cobbled together a bunch of little black boxes with blinking LED's that make a picture of a Mooninite making a rude gesture. Actually, they look like those Lite-Brite toys I used to see all the time as a kid.

The boxes were strategically placed in public spaces in a number of cities, including New York, Chicago, Atlanta, Austin, Philadelphia, Seattle and San Francisco. But it was in Boston that all hell broke loose, about three weeks after the campaign began. Someone noticed one of the Mooninite boxes under a bridge. They called in the bomb squad to destroy one of the devices with a water cannon. Several streets and highways, and even part of the Charles River, were shut down.

Eventually, however, it began to dawn on the good people running the city that if Islamist terrorists were going to place explosive devices in public places, they most likely wouldn't call attention to them by encasing them in brightly lit boxes with cartoon characters giving the finger. Or maybe one of the bomb squad guys was an "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" fan.

In any event, they figured out that the whole thing was, not a foreign strike on U.S. soil, but instead that most of American of operations: an advertising campaign.

Now, some city governments might have been embarrassed at being pranked like this, especially considering the fact that all of the other major cities hadn't even reacted to the Mooninite "invasion." Some might have shrugged and moved on, or tried to push the whole thing under the rug.

Not Boston. Like a school principal who's just discovered a whoopee cushion in his office chair, the mayor and city government vowed to get whoever was responsible. And so they did. The two twenty-something "guerilla marketing" guys who placed the boxes were arrested and charged with "placing a hoax device" and "disorderly conduct."

After the city put pressure on Turner Broadcasting, the company agreed to cough up $2 million to compensate Boston for going nuts. I bet New York, Chicago, Atlanta, et al., were just kicking themselves. If they'd only been a little more paranoid, they might have cashed in, too.

If you look on the bright side, though, it's pretty much a win all around. Boston got a cool $2 million. Turner and the producers of "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" got more nationwide publicity than they could normally buy for that kind of money.

Of course, there is a downside. Terrorists now know that they don't have to go to all the trouble to collect nuclear material or germ warfare agents to scare us to death. All they need is boxes with blinky lights.

At least in Boston.

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