The advertisements first appeared Dec. 15. Pictured on movie screens, posters, and newspaper pages was a two-foot-tall garden gnome with a ruddy complexion and pointy red cap. He stared yearningly at the horizon.
"Wanted: My Garden Gnome. Have you seen him?" the ads read. The desperate owner, "Bill," provided a URL and toll-free hot line. Over the following weeks, more than 308,000 people visited the website (www.whereismygnome.com), which featured postcards of the gnome in exotic locations. Another 140,000 or so called the hot line.
As it turns out, the ads were a precursor to an $80 million Travelocity advertising campaign. In the latest television ads, the gnome, speaking with a slight British accent, narrates snapshots of his adventures: bobsledding, duct-taped to skis, and submerged in a hot tub.
The publicity stunt reminded many of the 2001 French film "Amélie." In the film, Amélie conspires with a flight attendant to send her father's gnome on a world tour - complete with photographs of the gnome at foreign landmarks - to inspire him to travel. However, David Emery, who covers urban legends for About.com, says that gnome-napping is an international phenomenon with at least a 20-year history.
"I don't know if it's possible to pinpoint the earliest instance of gnome-napping, but the first reported case of a 'roaming gnome' took place in the mid-1980s," says Mr. Emery. "It was documented by an Australian folklorist named Bill Scott, who wrote of a gnome disappearing from the front lawn of a Sydney family." Shortly thereafter, the family received a postcard from the gnome saying he was vacationing in Queensland. The gnome returned two weeks later, coated with brown shoe polish - a souvenir suntan.
"As the '80s wore on, the prank grew popular not only in Australia but in England and, to a lesser extent, America as well," says Emery. And years before "Amelie," the long-running British soap opera "Coronation Street" featured a similar plot in which a man stole his neighbor's gnome and taunted him with ransom letters and photographs.
Barbara Austin of Greensboro, N.C., had never thought about gnome-nappers until one of her three gnomes disappeared in August 2002. When she came home to find his spot empty, she saw a note inside a plastic bag. It read: "Gone travelin'. Back later."
The gnome would return, but not before Ms. Austin received several packets of photographs from "Gnome." Nearly 50 days later, she woke up and spotted balloons in her front yard. Outside stood the gnome with a photo album and a map detailing his trek. He had had traveled 11,016 miles, to 28 states, Canada, and Mexico with four men and one woman. The snapshots showed him at national landmarks and baseball parks, in cars and airports, with pets he befriended, and next to yard art he encountered.
Sometimes, though, the gnomish pranks can get out of hand. In 2002, three men, ages 18 to 21, were arrested in Lockport, N.Y., for possessing 14 stolen gnomes. Such arrests are becoming more common as some gnome-nappers try to fulfill grander ambitions such as those of the Front de Libération des Nains de Jardin (Garden Gnome Liberation Front). The French group has reportedly "liberated" more than 6,000 gnomes since 1997. Instead of sending photos, such gnomes typically turn up en masse: returning to forest life, congregating on church steps, and, once, hanging by their necks from a bridge.
Perhaps because they fear being apprehended or simply unmasked, many gnome-nappers seek anonymity. One such thief posts photographs on his website (www.nigelthegnome.com) but refuses to reveal his identity. However, via e-mail, "Nigel the Gnome" reports that he was taken in 2001 from Destin, Fla., by a student on spring break and that he sends updates to his "mom."
"My friend still has not met my mom. I will make it back home one day, but I'm not ready yet," writes Nigel. "I still have more traveling to do." While the widely traveled gnome says a cruise is under consideration, he professes a longing to hike the Appalachian Trail.
A couple dozen news stories about stolen - though not always postcard-sending - gnomes surface worldwide each year, notes Emery, and have become staples of popular culture. "There's a definite homespun charm to the roaming-gnome prank that probably stems from their tacky cuteness and how they're anthropomorphized by clever pranksters," he says. "Plus, each case is a minimystery of a sort that rarely gets solved."
Austin still derives much delight from the mysterious nature of her gnome's travels. Perhaps that's why she finds a rear-view photo of the gnome and his secret companion so appealing. "They're both just looking out over the city, wherever this city is, kind of ... daydreaming. For some reason, it really strikes me."