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This commercial nabbed a mobster

Targeted advertising works. On June 20, the FBI began running a TV commercial seeking tips about a pair of most-wanted fugitives: Crime boss James “Whitey” Bulger and his girlfriend Catherine Greig. Two days later, both were in cuffs. Here’s the commercial:

(Direct link to the video.)

Details of the arrest are still unclear, but given the timing, the PSA probably had something to do with it. If so, this is a milestone in using advertising to fight crime. Update: Boston.com reports: “[Special agent Richard] DesLauriers said at a news conference at the federal courthouse in Boston that a tip was received Tuesday night by the FBI in Los Angeles that was a ‘direct result’ of a new FBI media campaign launched on Monday.”

FBI agents tried something unusual with this campaign. Unlike, for example, wanted posters in post offices, the FBI used demographic targeting to reach people likely to know one of the suspects. The FBI explained the strategy in a press release issued before the arrests:

“Approximately 350 time slots in media markets in 10 states were purchased in an effort to reach a particular demographic to generate quality tips from the public.

“‘The FBI believes that publicizing Catherine Grieg’s photo and characteristics among her contemporaries will lead to a tip about her whereabouts and, ultimately, to the arrest of Bulger,’ said Richard DesLauriers, Special Agent in Charge of the Boston Division.

“The 14 cities where the PSA will air were chosen because the FBI knows or suspects Greig or Bulger has ties to those areas. The cities are Albuquerque, NM; Biloxi, MS; Boston, MA; Chicago, IL; Ft. Myers, FL; Miami, FL; Milwaukee, WI; Mobile, AL; New Orleans, LA; Phoenix, AZ; San Diego, CA; San Francisco, CA; Tampa, FL; and Tucson, AZ.

“The PSA will air during shows that have a high percentage of female viewers in the same age group as 60-year-old Greig, the group most likely to interact with her. The FBI is targeting that audience with the belief that a friend, co-worker, neighbor, hair stylist, manicurist, doctor or dentist might recognize Greig.

“‘In terms of publicity, for 100 years the FBI has known that combining the reach and power of the media with alert citizens is a successful formula for catching fugitives,’ said Supervisory Special Agent Richard Teahan, who leads the Boston FBI task force searching for Bulger. ‘So we’re taking the next logical step and focusing on Greig as part of a unique initiative.'”

Instead of airing the commercial everywhere, the FBI focused its ad budget on women around age 60 in certain cities. This included, according to that Boston.com article, popular daytime talk shows like “Ellen,” “The View,” and “Live with Regis & Kelly.” This sort of targeting is what marketers do all the time, but it’s an unusual tool for law enforcement. Here, it was a complete success.

— By Daryl Lang. Filed under Advertising, News & Journalism

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