History of advertising: No 178: United Way's balloons

History of advertising: No 178: United Way's balloons

On 27 September 1986, almost 1.5 million balloons were released into the skies above the US city of Cleveland.

What happened next was not only one of the most spectacular marketing disasters of modern times but a massive and costly embarrassment for United Way of Cleveland, the charity that had hoped to raise both its profile and cash for its cause.

Instead, the organisers found they had unleashed terrible consequences that led to lawsuits, a devastating environmental impact and, worst of all, human tragedy.

Later, George Fraser, the charity’s director of marketing and communications, was to refer to the infamous Balloonfest 86 as his greatest success and his biggest failure.

Certainly, the idea was bold in its concept. A Los Angeles-based specialist company had spent six months preparing for what was to have been an attempt to break the record for the simultaneous release of balloons set the previous year in California to celebrate Disneyland’s 30th anniversary.

A three-storey structure was built to hold the balloons and 2,500 students and other volunteers spent hours filling them with helium. Children sold sponsorships to benefit United Way at a price of $1 for every two balloons.

In theory, the balloons should have simply flown upwards until they burst. In practice, they hit a front of cool air and rain and dropped towards the ground.

The result was mayhem. Road accidents resulted from drivers swerving to avoid the "balloon blizzards", the local airport had to be shut temporarily, land and waterways were clogged and prize Arabian horses suffered permanent injuries after being spooked by balloons landing in their pasture.

Most seriously, the balloons were said to have hampered coastguards searching for two fishermen whose boat had capsized on Lake Erie. Their bodies were found two weeks later.

Things you need to know

The widow of one of the fisherman sued United Way and others for $3.2m while the owner of the horses began a $100,000 lawsuit. Both actions were settled out of court.

United Way, which spent $500,000 on the stunt, came under fire from some Cleveland residents for wasting money received from donors.

Fraser, who also held senior management roles at Ford and Procter & Gamble, went on to write critically acclaimed books aimed at the African American business community.

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