A trial balloon, or kite-flying (used in the UK and elsewhere), 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. The term is of French origin. Trial balloon translates French ballon d'essai, a small balloon sent up immediately before a manned ascent to determine the direction and tendency of winds in the upper air, though the earliest use in English is figurative.
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 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.
In American slang, the phrase raise the flag and see who salutes (i.e., to raise an issue and see the reaction) might be used to describe a trial balloon.
A British example was in 1885 when Herbert Gladstone, son of Liberal Party leader William Ewart Gladstone, wrote a letter to The Times stating support for Irish Home Rule. This has been dubbed the Hawarden Kite after Hawarden Castle, the Gladstone family home. Historians are uncertain whether this was co-ordinated between the Gladstones, but the reaction was sufficiently sympathetic for Gladstone to publicly commit himself and his party to a policy of Irish Home Rule.
Another example was the suggestion in Ireland in the 1960s by Brian Lenihan, Minister for Justice, that Ireland should join the Commonwealth of Nations. He did so on the instructions of the Taoiseach, Seán Lemass. However the Irish public and general reaction was hostile, and Lemass and Lenihan both agreed to abandon the idea, with Lemass, in concert with Lenihan, claiming that Lenihan had been speaking theoretically in a personal capacity and not for his government.
- "trial balloon - definition of trial balloon in English from the Oxford dictionary". www.oxforddictionaries.com. Retrieved 2015-09-28.
- 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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