Sunday, December 30, 2012

Who's responsible for cleaning this stain?

Every December for the past 10 years, a reader has ventured on a holiday outing with her daughter and two grandsons to take in some festive show. Over the years, the destination has ranged from performances of The Nutcracker ballet to stage performances of It's aWonderful Life and all sorts of shows in between. After the show, the crew typically takes in the city's Christmas lights and any store windows that might have been decorated.

This year, the reader decided upon a performance by the wildly popular Blue Man Group, a show that near as I can tell is built around three men in blue makeup doing inventive things on stage with PVC tubing, Jell-O, toilet paper and assorted other food items. Since the grandsons are now 11 and 14, it seemed an age-appropriate and festive rollick.

For those of you who have been to a Blue Man Group performance (I haven't), you'll know that audience members in the first several rows are given rain ponchos to wear since at some point in the show various stuff (liquids, foods, Jell-O) are flung into the crowd. Since they would be slightly dressed up for the theater, my reader steered clear of those seats.

As she suspected, the boys loved the show. But as she was leaving she noticed that pieces of masticated banana that had been thrust upon the audience manage to get on her winter coat and leave spots. Not wanting to ruin the moment by complaining to an usher or box office attendant, she broke away from the boys for a second and, explaining that she deliberately hadn't sat in the rain poncho seats, asked a theater manager if she knew how to get banana stains off of a wool coat.

"Some water should take that right out," the manager responded. It didn't.

Now, she was faced with having to have the coat dry cleaned to get the stains out. Since it had a fur collar, the cleaning bill wouldn't come cheap.

"Should the theater be responsible for the cleaning bill?" she asks.

Looking online at the ticket policy, the Blue Man Group does feature a statement on its website similar to those you see on the back of sporting event tickets that indicate your acknowledgment that, say, if you get hit by a puck, it's not the events' responsibility or liability.

Still why give out rain ponchos to only some audience members when others might be in a banana's way, as well?

The right thing would be for the theater to warn all patrons when they purchase tickets that they might not want to wear their finest garb. Better still, it wouldn't limit its distribution of rain ponchos to just the first few rows since banana clearly has a way of spilling further into the audience. But given its disclaimer, I'm not convinced the theater is responsible for footing the cost of a cleaning bill.

Still, a spokesman for Blue Man Productions says that while they have no formal policy covering people outside the poncho seats who might get splattered, they "have for years paid for dry cleaning when appropriate."

So there's no harm in my reader asking, but if the theater declines, then it's on her to eat the cost. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

(c) 2012 JEFFREY L. SEGLIN. Distributed by Tribune MediaServices, Inc.


Anonymous said...

Ha! this is funny Jeff. Years ago I saw this show, and sat in "poncho" seats. I got slimed and wasn't happy about it either. But the spirit of the show was fun. I learned a lesson.

William Jacobson said...

The ponchos aren't to protect you from getting a little banana on your clothes... they are there to protect you from getting completely slimed. You already hit the issue on the head - by buying tickets and entering the theater having been given notice of the messy nature of the show, your reader provided license that she may get messy. It is nice that the show MAY pick up the cleaning bill but they aren't required to. May I suggest that when your reader takes her grandchildren to the Monster Truck Derby next year, that she not wear her finest linens?

William Jacobson
Anaheim, CA

Anonymous said...

Maybe some of you remember the hilarious antics of a comedian some years ago named Gallagher, whose whole schtick was using a sledge hammer to splatter the audience with watermelons and other disgusting stuff. When people go to events knowing ahead of time there's going to be this type of goings on, worrying about cleaning costs are the least of their worries. Granted, this example in Jeffrey's column is a little different but come on, people go to these events knowing what's coming.

Charlie Seng
Lancaster, SC

Anonymous said...

You are the stain, Seglin. When an American journalist was arrested in Turkey for "advocacy," you gave Ankara coverage with this quote:
"Clearly, he's doing advocacy work as a journalist. There is a level of reporting he's doing, but he's clear he goes into it with a particular slant,'' Jeffrey L. Seglin, an associate professor of journalism at Emerson College and ethics columnist for The New York Times Syndicate was quoted as saying.

Who are you to lecture anyone?