Be careful what you wish for…
"Runaway Train" deals with the alienation and hopelessness of a runaway teen. Why not use the music video as a pop culture Public Service Announcement? This earnest idea came at a time of great earnestness in the music industry, a very "crunchy granola" version of social awareness. It seemed like a match made in Heaven, a "win/win" situation.
The music video intercut dramatized scenes of domestic horror (a man beats his wife; an elderly woman steals an unattended baby from a stroller) with "have you seen this child" photographs and information about missing teens. The specific teens highlighted in the music video were changed to spotlight local runaways for the video's biggest markets, like the U.S., U.K., and Germany.
It must be said that another social undercurrent this video hooked itself to was the rise in fear of strangers. The perception of crime, that the world is a dangerous place, really started to rise in the mid-1990s, even at a time when actual crime statistics were falling. Music videos like this one, which portrayed the world as a harsh place with poor lighting and bountiful violence were partly to blame. Our perceptions of the world are shaped largely by what we see on television, and in the 1990s according to television the world was a pretty scary place.
In hindsight, the results of this campaign seem drearily obvious. Almost every single teen featured in the video was eventually found. A few turned up as corpses, having been killed by their abusive parents or - in a few instances - by local serial killers. Others were pressured to return home by their friends, who had seen them in the videos. A few kids were "guilted" into returning home by the video.
And what they found was that there was a pretty good reason why they had left home in the first place. If you know teenagers, or were one, you are probably aware that kids mainly run away from home to escape abuse, either physical or sexual. Turns out, putting these kids back in the homes they had tried to escape? Not such a great idea. Worse, it made the kids feel as if they were the bad ones, the ones who were to blame, for having run away in the first place.
Although the band members have admitted that they wouldn't do it over again if they had the chance, you can't fault them for having tried to make the world a better place.