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Loose Cannon: There's a Balloon Boy Born Every Minute

Thursday, October 22, 2009

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  • It's not every day that someone dreams up a prank
that rivets the world's attention for a couple of hours, yet the reasons behi

    It's not every day that someone dreams up a prank that rivets the world's attention for a couple of hours, yet the reasons behi

Written by Greg Beneteau

P. T. Barnum, American showman and creator of the “The Greatest Show on Earth” had a knack for profiting off people’s gullibility.

His hoaxes, from the Feejee mermaid to the Cardiff Giant statue, and his collection of curiosities made him one of the 19th century’s greatest entertainers. They also made him very, very rich.

But while he was certainly an inveterate self-promoter, Barnum wasn’t without his convictions. He abhorred slavery, mocking racist attitudes in his performances and plays. In 1865, Barnum won a seat in the Connecticut state legislature and later helped ratify the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, abolishing slavery in his home state.

He also used his knowledge of hucksterism to expose sprit mediums, potion peddlers and con artists who exploited people without giving anything back.

When it came to hype (or “humbug,” as he called it) Barnum had a moral code of sorts: if you want to trick people for a living, you’d better entertain or educate them at the same time.

Case in point is the bizarre saga of Denver resident Richard “Balloon Boy” Heene, who captivated the world’s attention last week after his 6-year-old son Falcon apparently floated off in a homemade silver dirigible.

Poor Falcon was later found safe and sound and hiding in the attic. In an interview with CNN the boy let it spill that he’d hidden away “for a show.” The Heene family, veterans of the reality TV program Wife Swap, had apparently been trying to pitch their own show to various networks.

Authorities are expected to lay a variety of felony and misdemeanour charges against Richard and his wife Mayumi, which could result in serious jail time.

If the whole affair was premeditated, I condemn it, but not necessarily for the all reasons one might suspect.

Yes, the Heenes wasted taxpayer money by having the National Guard follow the good ship Jiffypop up and down Colorado. Then again. so do people who climb up skyscrapers and bungee jump off bridges. Those people often get off with a slap on the wrist, despite the dangerousness of such activities. At least with the Balloon Boy hoax, no one was really in danger.

Some people have chastized the parents for exploiting people’s fears to get press coverage. Guess what? It worked. Like all great scammers, the Heenes knew that victims are often eager participants in their own hoodwinking. These days, even news outlets don't ask too many questions if something seems sufficiently unusual or interesting.

Nor is fear mongering a tactic used solely by desperate reality TV has-beens. After weeks of debate and countless town hall meetings, opponents of health care reform in the U.S. continue to falsely assert that the Democrats' plan allows bureaucrats to kill off the elderly. There’s a vocal minority down south who simply refuse to believe President Barack Obama is a U.S. citizen.

On television, online and in person, there will always be people to buy into the next big deception.

The trick to avoid becoming angry when you're the victim of a prank is to a) admit that you've been had and b) laugh it off.

But unlike the exploits of P. T. Barnum, Heene's attempt at self-promotion was nothing to smile at. There was no redeeming entertainment or educational value. He just did it (allegedly) to make a quick buck.

I condemn the Balloon Boy hoax – if it was a hoax – not because it was effective, but because it was a cheap publicity stunt.

It's not every day that someone dreams up a prank that rivets the world's attention for a couple of hours, yet the reasons behind it – personal fame and fortune – were unimaginative and selfish. Simply put, the Heenes let all the air out of our balloons.

Greg Beneteau is Editor-in-Chief of thecannon. Loose Cannon publishes every Thursday in The Ontarion Student Newspaper at the University of Guelph.

The opinions posted on thecannon.ca reflect those of their author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Central Student Association and the Guelph Campus Co-op. We encourage all students to submit opinion pieces, including ones that run contrary to the opinion piece in question.

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