The strange objects that set off a scare in Boston and caused at least one of them to be blown up were magnetic lights set up by Turner Broadcasting to promote the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie. They had been in place for weeks before being mistaken for something dangerous and causing authorities to shut down bridges and access into the Charles River.
Aqua Teen Hunger Force is a usually entertaining short cartoon that appears on the Cartoon Network's adult swim.
This isn't the first time that a movie marketing campaign has resulted in this kind of hysterical over-reaction. In April of last year, a device that played the "Mission: Impossible" theme was placed into Los Angeles Times newspaper vending machines. One of the devices in Santa Clarita had exposed wires, was mistaken for a bomb, and the L.A. County Sheriff's Office arson squad blew it up.
UPDATE: CNN has a photo of one of the Aqua Teen light boards, which depicts the Mooninite named Err (the smaller one), extending his middle finger. (Correction--it's the bigger one, Ignignokt, in the picture above, though there are some of Err as well.)
UPDATE (February 1, 2007): Here's how an Associated Press story in the Arizona Republic described these devices: "The exact nature of the objects was not disclosed. But authorities said some looked like circuit boards or had wires hanging from them."
That sounds a lot scarier than the reality, doesn't it? It conveniently omits the fact that there's a clear pattern of lights depicting a cartoon character. That article goes on to say "At least some of the devices resemble one of the villains on "Aqua Teen," part of Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim lineup." Is there any evidence that any of them did not?
Nine of ten cities where these devices were put in place did not have a panicked overreaction, and the one that did waited two to three weeks before jumping into a panic. Had they been actual malicious devices, their reaction would have been too late.
One word of advice for future marketeers: put a label on your devices with a phone number that can be called so you can explain what you're doing before the authorities blow up your equipment.
Here's another picture of one of the devices in place.