Avoid scary promotions

Monday, June 4, 2007

A recent promotion for Sheepskins Collective Apparel in Des Moines led to an evacuation and closing of a downtown street. The panic is similar (although on a lesser scale) to that in January caused by several electronic light boards distributed around Boston. The battery powered light boards distributed in Boston and nine other major cities promoted a comedy TV series.

The Des Moines scare resulted from an online scavenger hunt with clues left at actual locations. It was interrupted when someone found spent shotgun shells and an envelope on an outside chessboard at a downtown coffee shop and called police.

Ian T. Miller, a representative of Sheepskins Collective Apparel, said he didn't mean to cause such a stir but conceded that shotgun shells may have not been the best clue containers.

The observation is correct but we cannot judge those responsible for the scavenger hunt too harshly. There was nothing threatening in the clues themselves and the sight of shotgun shells should not, in itself, create a panic.

Nor should an electronic light board depicting a middle-finger-waving, space-suited man be considered a likely lethal device, as it was in Boston but not in nine other cities in which the promotion occurred.

It may seem that we've become wound too tightly since 9/11/01, seeing eminent danger where none is obvious. But it is not a new phenomenon for segments of the public to react to imaginary dangers that, in hindsight, don't appear credible threats.

On October 30, 1938, untold numbers of people panicked because of a nationwide radio dramatization of "War of the Worlds," a science fiction story by H.G. Wells in which Martians invade the Earth. There were on-air announcements at the beginning of the broadcast and at commercial breaks that the radio broadcast was a dramatization, but many people loaded into cars and headed away from the areas where Martians supposedly landed.

People need to be sensitive to the potential for panic but it is not always possible to predict what will create irrational reactions.