What Broadway Producers and Publicists can learn from The Balloon Boy.

What a big balloon bozo.

I’ll admit it. I’m a huge fan of creative “stunts” designed to get your “product” attention.  In a cluttered marketing environment (like, I don’t know, Broadway?) the right story can get you more attention than you could ever afford.

I’ve done a few in my day, from allowing virgins to get in free, to being the first musical to endorse a political candidate, and so on.  Some worked. Some didn’t.  And with some, we were betrayed by hypocritical politicians who claimed they were for the little guy (when the truth was they were only for their own “little guy”).

Regardless of the wackiness of some of the things I’ve done, or some of the things others have done successfully, they were always based in truth, and exaggerated for fun from there.

And no one got hurt in the process by the exaggeration.

Unlike the insanity of the parents of the Balloon Boy.

One of the most famous Broadway stunts is the David Merrick Subways Are For Sleeping poster campaign, where he found individuals with the same names as the biggest critics in town to give him great quotes about the show, and he put these quotes all over the poster.  See photo.

Fun, right?  And truthful.  (The ad also had pictures of the “critics” so he couldn’t be accused of trying to overtly mislead the public – of course no one knew what those guys looked liked in those days anyway).

Was Merrick pushing it?  Yes, but the campaign was also a subtle comment on the value we put in a name, therefore brilliant.

The crazy part is that Merrick got even more press from getting caught than he got from the campaign itself (he admitted that he had come up with this idea years before but he couldn’t find anyone with the same name as Times critic, Brooks Atkinson.  When Atkinson retired in 1961, Merrick was good to go).

And that’s the barometer of whether a stunt is worth doing.

Ask yourself . . . if I get “caught,” will I benefit even more?  If someone busts me, will I look like a balloon boy boob, or an inventive entrepreneur.

If you’re even close to looking like a BBB, then go back to the drawing board.

Start with the truth and use your creativity to take you to heights higher than any BS balloon could take you.

  • Hey! I’ve been enjoying following you here and on Twitter. And I love this post- it is interesting to compare the facets of different marketing campaigns- the successes, the pitfalls, the risks. And I love studying other industries and seeing what we can utilize for ours.
    I was particularly struck by your example of “Subways Are For Sleeping” because… I am actually starring in the first EVER revival of “Subways…” which is running Nov 1-11 here in NYC. This project has never been revived since its run on Broadway in 1961-62, and we’re doing it with special permission by Phyllis Newman (Adolph Green’s widow) and Joseph Weiss (general manager of Jule Styne Enterprises.) Let me know if you’d like to see the show, and I’ll set aside tickets for you.
    Thanks again for all of the wonderful posts- and have a wonderful week!
    Erin =)

  • Ron says:

    In 1961 I was the production director at the Blaine Thompson Company – the ad agency for almost every Broadway show that opened. I set up the Subways quote ad. This is how I remember it.
    The ad had been prepared about a week ahead. I was instructed to hold the ad past the deadline – as long as possible – so that The Times Acceptability Department would not have time to study the ad too long. We were not as concerned about the other papers. The ad was delivered and they did not immediately see anything wrong. Remember, it was very late – well past the deadline and they were more interested in getting it into the paper. If my memory is correct, the ad was rushed into the first edition that actually did make it out into the streets.
    At about that same time, someone at the Tribune called the Times to let them know they had found a problem with the Subways quote ad. Usually whatever theatrical ads ran in the Tribune also ran in The Times – so the Trib folks were just doing The Times a favor by letting them know. I believe this was a common practice.
    Now, The Times folks took a hard look at the ad and realized the problem and immediately pulled it from the rest of the run. However, the first edition was already out in the streets. The Tribune people saw that first Times edition and assumed if the Times ran it, then the ad was ok. They did not bother to check back with The Times and they ran the ad in all or most HT editions.
    Later that evening, on my way home, I met David Merrick at the newsstand on the corner of 44th and 8th avenue. He was buying lots of copies of the papers. He told me to buy some because, he said, it was going to be a collector’s item. I told him if he bought all the copies there would be none left for the general public to read. He put some copies back.
    The following week The Times ran their own full page quote ad – “What The Ad Said – What It Should Have Said.”
    They ran our quotes and applied actual quotes from the real critics next to ours. Needless to say, there was very little praise.
    Oddly enough, I also seem to recall that the real reviews of Subways were not quite as bad as were expected. But definitely not good. What is the saying? If it’s not good – it’s bad.
    I also recall that within a few days, the incident was discussed on the floor of congress and there was a debate about applying sanctions or rules to all advertising. I do not remember if anything came of it. The following week, a Times representative visited our offices and read the riot act to the two men who ran the agency. You could hear him shouting over the entire floor.
    Merrick was very tough to work with – to the executives at Blaine Thompson – but not to us less senior folks.

    • Here it is 5 years later and I just stumbled across this email. Terrific to hear a story like this. I worked at Blaine-Thompson during the 60’s — one of the bullpen artists — and remember Ron very well. What he says about those opening nights and dealing with Merrick’s ideas is very true. It was the greatest of times. We were all having an office party in Sardi’s the night of the big blackout of 1965, to me about the best night New York ever had.

  • CL Jahn says:

    In 1987, Donald Trump bought Mar A Lago in Palm Beach. For weeks, you’d find headlines like “Trump visits Golf Club” or “Trump dines at Breakers.” We tried unsuccessfully to get him to our theatre. So I suggested that we find someone with the last name “Trump” and get them on our board, and send out a press release “Trump Joins Actors’ Rep Board!”
    No takers. Where’s the spirit of adventure?

  • Thanks for posting. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this.

  • Dan L says:

    Thanks so much for sharing that great piece (and Ron’s follow up story) on Subways Are for Sleeping. It brought back fond memories. I grew up in New York, and at the time my family had a great laugh over that ad. (I would have been 14. We were – and I shall always be grateful – a theatregoing family.)
    My old high school had an annual theatre benefit for parents – and had a knack for picking clunkers. Among those that come to mind: Subways Are for Sleeping, as well as Oh Captain! (the year of Music Man and West Side Story) and Hot Spot. Its one success story was Bells Are Ringing. But, of course, they could have gone with My Fair Lady instead.
    Our temple was an even more pathetic forecaster. Its most notorious theatre party choice was Café Crown (the year of Hello Dolly, Funny Girl, High Spirits, and She Loves Me).

  • Ed says:

    Thanks for sharing that, Ron.
    As I ran an ad agency that went from 2 people in an apartment to 20 employees over the course of over a dozen years,(and some very nice accounts) I can identify- and I can certainly appreciate it.

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