FBI ROI: TV Ads Help Swiftly Nab Notorious Gangster

TV sales departments may have a new wealthy client: the FBI. After 16 years of chasing alleged Boston murderer James "Whitey" Bulger, the feds launched a search campaign this week, which swiftly produced a tip leading to his arrest Wednesday near Los Angeles.

So, for those keeping score at home:

Massive 16-year dragnet: no arrest.

Short TV campaign: caught.

Sales executives may be able to add an "FBI ROI" case study to their pitches. A paid TV campaign like the one used to nab Bulger marked an unprecedented move by the FBI, suggesting it may not be the last.

After all, Bulger was one of the FBI's "Ten Most Wanted" for alleged involvement in 19 murders. He's gone, but there are 10 more and the FBI doesn't exactly have small pockets.

Who knows? Congress may now authorize a huge budget if advertising is more effective and cheaper than long traditional manhunts. The cost of the Bulger effort was not revealed.

The FBI said the TV campaign was scheduled to start Tuesday in 14 markets. And that night, the golden tip came in.

Bulger's capture was "a direct result of the FBI's unique media campaign," said Richard DesLauriers, who heads the FBI's Boston office, in a news conference.

DesLauriers did not provide more details. There was nothing akin to "a 60-year-old female in Phoenix saw our ad during 'The Price is Right' and phoned in immediately."

The FBI's Los Angeles office got the tip. TV's precise role in the Bulger arrest could have taken many routes, particularly since Los Angeles was not one of the 14 markets where the 30-second spots were set to run.

A Super Bowl-like dynamic may have emerged that has marketers looking for ways to give their pricey spots a long tail with plenty of earned (free) media.

The FBI's announcement Monday about the ad campaign generated notable print coverage and the spot itself was likely shown on multiple newscasts at no cost. It was also distributed via YouTube and there was a link on the FBI's Facebook page.

(There was also a "wanted" billboard in Times Square that could have helped, maybe chipping away at TV's primacy.)

The FBI tried an unorthodox tack with its 30-second spot, which was scheduled to run about 350 times in markets from Albuquerque to Chicago to Tampa. Instead of focusing on the 81-year-old Bulger, the spot highlighted his long-time girlfriend and companion on the lam: Catherine Greig.

The high-energy, coarsely produced spot featured a female voiceover asking: "Have you seen this woman?" Photos of the 60-year-old Greig were shown, with the voiceover saying she's had "multiple plastic surgeries."

Greig was arrested Wednesday with Bulger and was wanted for harboring a fugitive.

The FBI said the spot would air during shows with a large female audience in an age group around Greig's 60. Targets included a hair stylist or manicurist who may have served Greig. 

Bulger was such an important FBI target that he trailed only Osama Bin Laden on the "Ten Most Wanted List" for some time. Many in Boston, where he has been a subject of intense fascination and will stand trial for the 19 murders, thought he would never be found.

Over the years, there were sightings, or alleged ones, in places from London to New Orleans and "America's Most Wanted" featured the case.

The Bulger saga is of course intriguing because he was apparently able to use disguises and other tecniques to elude authorties for so long. How did he get money (he was found with a stash of cash)? Did he get a passport to travel internationally? 

But there is also the hard-to-make-it-up juxtaposition with is brother William Bulger. For a long time, he served as President of the Massacusetts Senate and then as President of the Universty of Masschusetts. Questions swirled about how much he knew about his brother's whereabouts.

Speaking of questions, if the FBI had some about TV ads as one tactic in catching criminals, those may have been answered this week. What took it so long to chase an answer?

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