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A trial balloon is information sent out to the media in order to observe the reaction of an audience. It can be used by companies sending out press releases to judge reaction by customers, or it can be used by politicians who deliberately leak information on a policy change under consideration.
In politics trial balloons often take the form of an intentional news "leak" to assess public opinion. An example was when the New York Times reported in mid-June 2012 that Governor Andrew Cuomo and his staff were deliberating on a plan to restrict hydrofracking to five counties in the 'southern tier' of New York, along the Pennsylvania border, where the Marcellus shale is deepest and drilling is least likely to pollute well water supplies in those aquifers. Because the proposed change in New York energy law was highly controversial, the Albany Times Union the next day filed a front-page, above the fold story questioning the plan's leak as a "trial balloon" in the headline, which had quickly garnered both criticism and support.
In another example, a company might announce they are going to release a new computer program in a year, and then read the press coverage for hints on whether or not the product will have appeal in the marketplace. If the coverage is favourable the money will be spent on development, but if not the project can be cancelled before using up resources. A trial balloon under the company's own name is somewhat risky; if too many are "floated" the company risks becoming known as the company that cried wolf, and can find itself being ignored completely. In addition, the company can find that the product being planned is unworkable, leading to the phenomenon of vaporware.
- Hakim, Danny (June 13, 2012). "Cuomo Plan Would Limit Gas Drilling to a Few Counties in New York". New York Times. Retrieved June 13, 2012.
- Karlin, Rick (June 14, 2012). "Is trial balloon full of shale gas?: A report that Gov. Andrew Cuomo backs limited hydrofracking draws quick criticism, some support". Retrieved June 14, 2012.
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