Turner Broadcasting's publicity stunt for "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" was a debacle. But will it ultimately boost viewership for the animated Cartoon Network comedy? Early returns are mixed. However, the network's online traffic, probably due to the curiosity factor, saw big rises. Ratings for the show on Thursday, Feb. 1--a day after the story broke but the publicity wave crested--showed that household ratings jumped 20%, versus the Thursday broadcast (12 to 12:15 a.m.) the week before. But in the key male 18-to-34 demo, ratings actually declined slightly, by about 4%. The 15-minute show runs in Cartoon's adult-oriented nighttime Adult Swim block. On Wednesday, Jan. 31, Massachusetts officials called a promotion for the series, in which flashing light boards were placed around Boston, a potential national security issue. Web traffic for sites linked with the show--CartoonNetwork.com and AdultSwim.com--saw significant increases. AdultSwim.com saw traffic swell by 77% on Feb. 1, the day after the story broke, versus the Thursday the week before, according to Hitwise. (CartoonNetwork.com actually has no apparent content about the show.) "People are talking about it, and they're linking everywhere. They're probably hearing about Adult Swim for the first time," said Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer at Nielsen BuzzMetrics. Nielsen//NetRatings data showed unique users for CartoonNetwork.com (a site many interested observers might visit) jumped from 385,000 on the Thursday before the story to 790,000 the day after the story broke. (AdultSwim.com figures did not meet minimum reporting levels.) In the TV ratings area, for Wednesday, Jan. 31, the day the story burst over the Internet, household ratings jumped a less-significant 7% over the same Wednesday telecast the previous week. But again, ratings dropped 3% in the key male demo. A Turner rep said the promotion was aimed more at the "core audience/fan who would know the character(s)" than attracting new viewers. A film version of the show is slated for next month. Both Hitwise and Nielsen//NetRatings show that Web traffic to CartoonNetwork.com hardly soared on the day the story broke--Jan. 31--versus the Wednesday the week before. CartoonNetwork.com traffic actually dropped 7% on Jan. 31 versus Jan. 24, although AdultSwim.com traffic increased 14%, according to Hitwise. Nielsen//NetRatings showed that unique users for the same comparative period increased moderately for CartoonNetwork.com from 434,000 on Jan. 24 to 511,000 on Jan. 31. One theory: Adults fixated by the news wanted to check out what all the fuss was about--both on the Web and TV. The target younger male audience took a more casual approach, in line with what many young people in Boston may have felt: The government blew things out of proportion. Overall, ratings and Web traffic seemed to have increased as the story went from breaking news to more analytical coverage. Later stories questioned whether Massachusetts officials overreacted to the Cartoon Network promotion by shuttering roads, subways and part of a river. And the incident may have received extra mileage because two 20somethings charged in the incident seemed bemused and offered perplexing comments when they were released on bail. "It's sustained a lot longer than I expected and continues to do so, more because of the theatrics of these guys," Blackshaw said late last week. "Aqua Teen Hunger Force" airs each Sunday at 10:30 p.m., and repeats Monday through Thursday at midnight and again at 3 a.m. Nielsen BuzzMetrics' Blackshaw said the frisson over the controversy last week could have hurt marketers seeking attention for their coming Super Bowl spots. At a time when consumers seem to warm to advertising during "Ad Bowl" season, a negative marketing story erupted. "Consumers typically put skepticism toward advertising on the sidelines," he said, "and this event has almost had an acid rain effect on that."