Sunday, January 29, 2017

Remembering the Mooninite Invasion

The end of this month marks the anniversary of a curious event in pop culture, the day a guerilla marketing campaign for a cartoon movie collided with US national security. And depending on how old you were and how savvy you were to internet culture, the event was either an outrage or an overreaction.

So, the sequence of events went more or less like this. On the night of January 29, 2007, two Boston area artists, Peter "Zebbler" Berdovsky and Sean Stevens, placed several magnetic light-up signs featuring the moon-dwelling Mooninite characters from Cartoon Network's late night "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" show around the city. The devices were part of a guerilla marketing campaign meant to promote the upcoming "Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters," but there was nothing to indicate that they were advertisements. The next day, the devices caused a bomb scare, prompting the Boston authorities to shut down bridges and tunnels, snarling traffic and raising tensions throughout the city. Cartoon Network's parent company, Turner Broadcasting System, didn't notify the Boston authorities about the signs until the late afternoon.

The authorities, of course, were not amused. Nor were most of the citizens of Boston, stuck in traffic or rattled by the scare. The media referred to the incident as a "bomb hoax" for several days, even though there clearly wasn't any intention to mislead anyone. But how could Cartoon Network and the marketing company be so foolish, putting all these homemade electrical devices around town that incorporated an exposed circuit board, with nothing to identify it as an ad? This was only a little more than five years after the 9/11 attacks, and the country was still in the thick of the Iraq War. The gravity of the situation prompted Turner Broadcasting to accept full responsibility, paying $1 million in "good faith" money to the city of Boston to cover the expenses related to the incident. Cartoon Network's general manager and executive vice president, Jim Samples, resigned.

However, if you were under the age of thirty and internet savvy, the events of January 31, 2007 played out differently. I spent much of the day online, checking in with various message boards and communities connected to Adult Swim, the programming block that aired "Aqua Teen Hunger Force." In 2007 I was still a major anime nerd, and definitely part of the Adult Swim fanbase, even if I didn't watch "Aqua Teen." Frankly, the news coverage struck me and others as bizarre. It didn't take anyone online long to identify the image on the sign as one of the Mooninites giving people the finger. Or to find the photos of other devices around the country that fans had snapped, many of which had been displayed for several weeks. The devices didn't look like bombs. They looked like Lite-Brites. The massive response by the Boston police and Homeland Security was really overdoing things, bordering on silly. It was hard to take the whole thing seriously.

Zebbler Berdovsky and Sean Stevens clearly felt the way we did. The bizarre highlight of that day was watching the pair give a press conference after their arrest, where they insisted on only talking about hairstyles of the '70s. They would apologize fully for their part in the mess later on, but I understand why they treated the whole thing like a joke. From the POV of the young adults who were more familiar with adult cartoons and guerilla marketing campaigns, the situation was more funny than threatening. The police response was ridiculous. And the media insisting it was a hoax, and blurring out the Mooninite's offending finger was even more ridiculous. Immediately, the mockery and the protest began, with fanmade signs and T-shirts and other merchandising circulating in the following days. "Stop letting the terrorists win" was a popular slogan.

Many commentators pointed to a generational divide being responsible for the difference in reactions. I think this is true to some extent, but the Mooninite invasion also highlighted a difference in basic worldviews, between those that were still sensitive to the aftereffects of 9/11 and those who were tiring of it. I also like to think of it as something of a turning point, when we had an opportunity to step back and really look at what the post-9/11 climate of fear and security theater was doing to the country. I'm glad that it prompted a good amount of soul-searching, and lively debates in the press. The Boston authorities, to their credit, viewed the incident as an embarrassing misunderstanding, and Berdovsky and Stevens were only sentenced to community service.

The incident is a lot less funny in retrospect, since Boston really did suffer a major, devastating terrorist attack in 2013. However, the Mooninite invasion was an important sign of the times, highlighting the absurdity of life in the Bush era, the emerging power of internet denizens, and the growing fragmentation of the popular culture. It's funny that despite all the bad press, the scare had no real effect on "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" viewership. The show continued for another seven seasons, and ended in 2015.

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