OPINION: Stuart Elliott in America

The 60s American novelty song Monster Mash proclaimed that the title dance "caught on in a flash". So too has the contemporary phenomenon known as flash mobs, a term coined to define gatherings of strangers for brief periods to perform offbeat, even wacky tasks.

Flash mobs have gained the attention of the media in, well, a flash, and not only because it's the so-called silly season of summer, when US news reports are leavened with "lighter side" features. Also alluring to journalists are the flashy, high-tech origins of flash mobs: the crowds, also called smart flocks, tend to be bright, youngish things who are organised and summoned via e-mail lists, text messages and websites.

The goal of a flash mob is to perform in public not random acts of kindness, as the new-age bromide goes, but acts that are kind of random. And so far, dozens of such updated happenings or be-ins, to cite some 60s American novelty lingo, have incorporated elements of the commercial culture.

In Manhattan, where the fad-cum-trend apparently started, a flash mob turned up at the Toys "R" Us store in Times Square to stare at a dinosaur statue. About 300 flash mobsters "gazed at the dinosaur, as if transfixed, then fell to the floor screaming and waving their hands in the air", Reuters reported. "As store staff hurried to call security, the mob dispersed as quickly as it had gathered."

Another flash mob jammed into the rug section of Macy's department store, its members insisting to puzzled clerks they all lived together and wanted to buy a $10,000 "love rug".

In Cambridge, Mass., a flash mob packed the greeting-card section of the Harvard University Coop store, all there, they claimed, to buy a card for a friend named Bill.

Flash mobs abroad have also demonstrated a commercial bent, including one that massed at a sofa store in London and one in Rome whose members flooded a bookstore asking for make-believe titles by imaginary authors.

The resemblance of flash-mobbing to viral marketing has not gone unnoticed.

"The beauty of the recent craze is viral distribution," Mark Redetzke, writing on the ClickZ website, said. "Clearly, the viral power and influence of the web are alive and well." Redetzke - the vice-president of online media at Zentropy Partners, part of the McCann Relationship Marketing division of Interpublic's McCann-Erickson World Group - then offered suggestions to increase the viral aspects of campaigns, which can be effective, he said, even if they "are not likely to create a commercially branded flash mob".

Hmmmmmmmmmm. What if some agency, maybe a hip, plugged-in shop renowned for expertise in viral and guerrilla marketing, were to, on behalf of a hip, plugged-in client, organise a flash mob for pitching purposes?

Or more nefariously yet, simulate a flash mob to peddle a product?

The potential abuse of the instant crowds already worries those taking part in flash mobs, particularly because so many of them disdain what they consider as the over-commercialisation of everyday life. They embrace the events, silly as they may be, because it's entertainment all their own, unspoiled by sponsorship, outside the realm of the homogenised American entertainment-industrial complex.

Here's a news flash for Madison Avenue: there could be no better way to alienate such a hard-to-reach, hard-to-please audience as to mislead them.