The contentious hot air balloon boy mystery dominated global news last week and dominated the weekend. It would seem the entire world was glued to the screens over the fate of a cute young boy whose family feared he had been launched into space in a hot air balloon.
The seemingly frantic parents – the Heenes – raised the alarm mobilising cameras, police and the airforce and hours of unpaid air time. This mobilised army of people frantically followed the balloon as it floated across the skies of Colorado – only to find the balloon empty when it finally landed. The young boy Falcon was then astonishingly discovered in the attic of his home, where his Mum and Dad claimed he hid without them knowing. It turns out the family had concocted the whole fiasco as a publicity stunt to better market themselves for the possibilities of a TV reality show.
As the final hot air leaks from this story, it turns out the family definitely got what they wanted – lots of free publicity! However has the publicity stunt worked in their favour or did they step over the line? And what will this child think, in later years, when reflecting on the integrity of his family? The family are now under police investigation and face potential charges for conspiracy and wasting police time – perhaps even a jail sentence – which will really and very physically separate parents and child.
Publicity stunts have always been used as staged events designed to attract public attention to a brand or a particular campaign. As with all publicity, stunts can sometimes hit the mark such as the great Nando’s Peri Peri Sauce hijacking of the Bruno premier earlier this year, or they can fail with the public not paying any attention to the stunt at all.
Clothing chain Witchery generated publicity for its new men’s range with a fake viral video of a girl looking for the owner of a jacket earlier this year – which actually ended up damaging the brand. Mainly because the girl in question and the brand did not fess up to the stunt which prompted the media and public to grow weary of the story and lose faith in the brand. In the case of the hot air balloon the police did get involved, moving the story away from a publicity stunt into fabricated news. The Heenes, while raising their profile, have damaged their brand and will be seen as irresponsible time wasters, dishonest and quite frankly, in my opinion pretty poor role models as parents. Time will tell if the stunt finishes as a long lasting bad decision for all of them.
For a stunt to work it has to be ‘out of the ordinary’, mostly shocking but not dangerous, tap into the public psyche and catch the imagination. Successful publicity stunts have news value, offer photo, video and broadcast opportunities and cause a laugh. So if you are thinking of your next stunt (??!) there is no point in trying to stage it if you can’t see it catching the public’s imagination and create a buzz around your cause. The media receive hundreds of stories a day so your story has to stand out and do something different to catch their eye.
As the County Sheriff Jim Alderden, investigating the balloon boy case, said: “The Heenes put on a very good show for us, and we bought it!”
Top tip: Sometimes it’s the simplest that ideas work best.