Image5387411x So, it's come to this. I'm weighing in on Balloon Boy.

I floated this trial balloon (sorry) in my keynote on creativity yesterday at SummitUp.

(I also enjoyed the other keynotes: Lewis Howes on Linkedin, Kevin Dugan on storytelling in social marketing, Bob Garfield on the death of advertising, and Chris Brogan on humans. There's nothing quite so motivating as a social media conference.)

My Wonderful Balloon
I'll presume you know the story of Balloon Boy. We all do.

But I'll also presume that you — we all, as a nation — haven't really considered the story in a productive, constructive way.

Most of us — and all the coverage I've seen — started low (fear! freakish emergency! watch TV!) and gone lower (what the hell is wrong with these people? let's wallow! watch TV!).

I think this story has done more than attempt to destroy The Balloon Family. I think it's cast a harsh light on all of us.

We Crush People.
When sentencing the three spies to death (Henry V, II.ii), the newly engaged warrior king is moved to sadness, because this treason "methinks, is like another fall of man."

Hey, Hank, wethinks the same way, even when the crime isn't treason.

To this day, our popular culture seeks, finds and amplifies any failing or sin. We snipe and snap; we define others by their momentary failings. (Ironically, the non-religious and fundamentalists seem united as the Hypocrisy Police, sputtering mad at any display of inconsistency by others.)

Who amongst us should truly be known only for his greatest failing?

In Defense Of Balloon Dad
Listen, pal, I know that Balloon Dad made mistakes.

All his mistakes can be placed in that quintessentially American bucket labeled: "Seeks fame at any cost." He enlists his son in fraud. He abuses emergency services. He incites panic. He embarrasses all of America, if all our other tacky and gratuitous behavior hasn't already destroyed our international dignity.

All he learned from Bernie Madoff was: hey, I really think I can do this.

Balloon Dad — and we all — should be grateful no one died in the pursuit of that balloon. It's entirely plausible that an accident might have resulted, costing the life of a responder. Then, we'd be on to manslaughter charges.

In any case, Balloon Dad calculated poorly. And, yes, I wouldn't put my sick kid on The Today Show where he would barf.

But let's slow down here.

The Balloon Parents seem wacky to me, too. But let he with no wackiness cast the first stone. Truly: come to my home and watch me play the role of dad for a week. Am I Perfect Dad? Hardly. You'd soon see that I am just Balloon Dad Without A Balloon.

Balloon Dad — we can all agree on this — is just trying to make a living while getting his kids interested in science. (He just got in over his head by about 2,000 feet.)

Balloon Boy was in the rafters of the garage, right? Where was your kid at that time, Mr. and Mrs. Ideal Parents? Playing video games? Smoking crack?

An argument can be made for guy who loves science so much that he chases storms with his kids.

An Inch From Greatness
Allow me to pose the unthinkable question: what could Balloon Family have done to achieve a great media success, rather than a felony indictment?

I mean, really. They were very, very close to achieving exactly what they sought: national exposure for a science-related reality show about a family that is bonkers for science (and, yes, maybe just a little bonkers).

The main problem was, as I read, Balloon Dad planned this event for two weeks. That might have been a lot of planning for a guy who chases storms, but it isn't enough planning for a national social media campaign.

Monday Morning Quarterback
What could Balloon Dad have done differently?

  • Use a cat. Rather than having a missing child as the balloon ballast, use a house cat. The PETA people — and we all — should be outraged by this, but it would have resulted in the same media frenzy without the panic. (Is a cat too dear to exploit in this way? Pick the species you hate. How about bloggimus bombasticus?)
  • Call 911 first. By calling the FAA and CNN before calling 911, Balloon Dad acted like a social media guy rather than a dad whose kid is escaping from Oz. Even better would be to contact the authorities two week earlier. (What? That takes the thrill out of the emergency? Perhaps. It also removes the awkward felony charge.)
  • Coach the kid. Balloon Boy spilled the beans, once on Larry King ("You told me it was for the show.") and once on the floor while on The Today Show. Sophocles couldn't have directed this little fellow any better: he hears falsehood and responds by vomiting the truth.

Don't teach the kid how to lie, of course. Teach him a better answer that he can give America while he winks his eye like a child actor.

Imagine our collective opinion if Balloon Boy had looked into Larry King's third eye and said, with the honest, aw-shucks face of little Opie Taylor, "I guess you are right, Mr. King. We just wanted to bring our love of science to more children. If hiding in the rafters is a crime, let me be guilty." 

The New Adventures of Balloon Boy would be on CBS next Thursday night.

But Balloon Dad Isn't The Only Culprit Here.
Hey, we get the world we build.

If you watch this kind of low drama, you must want more of it. Otherwise, you'd have quickly decided to ignore it in favor of more productive activities.

But we get the media we deserve. Why else is The Today Show allowing a sick kid on the show. Is this news? Not hardly. The chase of the balloon was news. The day after was entertainment.

What television producer considers a sick kid barfing to be entertaining?

And who continues to watch such crap without barfing? Spending our time this way is not re-building this country.

Hand me the bucket, Balloon Boy. I'm with you.