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Councilors weigh requiring licenses for marketers

Councilors (from left) Maureen Feeney, Stephen Murphy, and Sam Yoon listened to police Superintendent Robert Dunford. (PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF)

In the aftermath of two recent guerrilla marketing stunts that ran afoul of local authorities, members of the City Council said yesterday they would consider forcing all corporate marketers to obtain city licenses before they can push products.

The proposal's authors, Maureen E. Feeney and Stephen J. Murphy, said new measures are needed because current fines and regulations do little to deter massive corporations seeking publicity through unconventional marketing campaigns.

"If they broke city laws and ordinances, then their licenses could be suspended," said Murphy, pointing out that a range of professions, from beauticians to doctors, are licensed and regulated by the government.

The two-hour hearing yesterday was prompted by recent controversies involving the Cartoon Network and Dr Pepper.

In the Cartoon Network incident Jan. 31, numerous electronic signs were placed on buildings, bridges, and other structures, triggering a regionwide bomb scare. Two men who authorities say installed the suspicious devices -- Peter Berdovsky, 27, and Sean Stevens, 28 -- face hoax charges and are scheduled to appear for a pretrial hearing today.

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Martha Coakley said yesterday that no plea deal had been worked out.

In the Dr Pepper case, the soft drink maker ran a nationwide hidden coin hunt, placing one of the coins in the historic Granary Burying Ground, where notables such as Samuel Adams and John Hancock were laid to rest. City officials, worried that eager coin hunters would damage the site, were outraged, prompting Dr Pepper on Feb. 22 to end the contest in Boston.

In both cases, local officials were not notified before the marketing campaigns were launched and no permits were sought by the firms. Turner Broadcasting, which owns the Cartoon Network, paid local governments and law enforcement agencies $2 million as restitution. Dr Pepper also apologized and donated $10,000 to the graveyard.

City councilors said that corporations like these -- both firms are part of multi billion-dollar conglomerates -- see fines simply as the cost of doing business.

Marketing officials who spoke at yesterday's hearing said that the industry regulates itself and that most companies would not pull stunts like the two that generated controversy here.

"I don't believe that adding rules, regulations, procedures on top of what exists today will help the problem," said Steven Halling, Boston chapter president for the American Marketing Association.

But that did little to assuage city councilors.

"I have no expectation that there is going to be self-imposed regulations by this industry," said Feeney, the council's president. "I think they are just going to push to out-do their competitors."

The proposal to license marketers has yet to be formalized or considered by the full City Council, but Feeney said she would take it up in closed-door meetings in the coming weeks. She said she would also continue meeting privately with marketing companies for their perspective.

City councilors heard from one local company that they say managed a guerrilla marketing campaign the right way. Conover Tuttle Pace ran the "Diamond Hunt' promotion for E.B. Horn jewelers, in which fake diamonds were hidden around the city. The firm wanted to hide one in the Granary cemetery but was denied permission by city officials. Councilors praised the firm for seeking city approval in the first place.

"One of the first things we did was to contact the Parks Department," said Jason Howarth, the firm's vice president for consumer and sports marketing.

Raja Mishra can be reached at rmishra@globe.com.

(Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story in yesterday's City & Region section about a Boston City Council hearing on guerrilla marketing incorrectly stated that future work on the issue would be in closed-door meetings. The sessions will be open to the public.)

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