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."