Seventy-two hours before a much-hyped Spider-Man appearance at Coliseum Mall last month, a Marvel Comics promoter contacted marketing director Karen Smith with disturbing news. Due to a scheduling error, the elusive superhero couldn't make it. The Hampton, Va., mall owned by Mall Properties Inc., was running promo spots on local radio stations and mailed 5,800 flyers to its Kids Club members touting the event. Smith and her PR team had to quickly inform eager Spidey fans that the aloof arachnid wouldn't be appearing, without casting Coliseum Mall as the villain.

Smith immediately pulled the radio ads and replaced them with ads seemingly placed by the promoter, saying that Spider-Man wouldn't be coming after all. “The only mention of our mall was the location,” Smith says. “We did it that way so that people would realize it wasn't our fault.” Also, the mall re-mailed each of the Kids Club members to break the news. The postage alone cost $1,000.

Liscensing issues hamstrung Smith, who explains that if the mall put on a show that wasn't produced by Marvel, it could get sued by the comic book conglomerate. During the next few days, Smith frantically wrangled consolation gifts for the kids she worried would show up anyway, and ordered a 14-foot Velcro wall for them to throw themselves at. “My concern was that we'd have a mall full of crying children,” she says.

The morning of the scheduled event, Smith showed up with a few thousand comic books and $3 foodcourt gift certificates. Though she was worried that as many as 3,000 children would flock to the mall, in the end only 225 miniature Spideys came. The kids were disappointed, Smith reports. But not one cried.