San Franciscans angry over video game balloon stunt

A video game promotion sends hundreds of balloons into the sky over the Game Developers Conference. But some people are outraged when many of the balloons land in the Bay.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read
Balloons settled on the San Francisco Bay on Wednesday after being released in a promotion for the new THQ video game Homefront. Twitter user seedlingproject

Update (Wednesday, 5:17 p.m. PST): This story now has a response from The Marine Mammal Center and The California Department of Fish and Game about the potentially hazardous effects of balloon litter on wildlife.

SAN FRANCISCO--Dozens of red balloons released today as a video game promotion ended up in the San Francisco Bay, causing anger among those who see the balloons as an environmental threat and an immediate danger to fish, birds, and other wildlife.

During the Game Developers Conference here, video game publisher THQ released hundreds of the balloons in conjunction with a promotion for its new game Homefront. Many of the balloons had a postcard-size flyer attached advertising the game. People in the downtown area saw the red decorations soaring in large clusters high into the sky, and when many of the balloons came to rest in the water alongside the San Francisco Bay Bridge, some began to express their anger.

The anger seemed aimed at video games retailer GameStop, which is a promotion partner of THQ's, and which had its name on the balloons.

"Your recent aerial spamming stunt in San Francisco was appalling and absolutely outrageous," a Facebook user named Teresa Aguilera wrote on GameStop's page. "Latex is biodegradable only after six months, which means the people and wildlife of San Francisco will be reminded of your irresponsibility far after the 'buzz' has faded away for you and your heinous video game."

And an Oakland artist named Camron Assadi said he wrote to GameStop with this message: "The idiots in your marketing department released hundreds of red balloons to promote a video game at GDC. Now those balloons are trash in the Bay. What are you going to do about it? Do you have a boat out there collecting this trash?"

The red balloons rise in the San Francisco sky on Wednesday. James Martin/CNET

Twitter, too, was full of anger over the promotion, with dozens of tweets expressing outrage at GameStop over the balloons ending up in the water.

But in a statement to CNET, GameStop pointed the finger at THQ.

"We understand the concerns consumers have regarding the impact balloons can have on the environment," GameStop said in the statement. "However, the balloon drop stunt in San Francisco was created by THQ, the publisher of Homefront, and GameStop had no prior knowledge of it. THQ has since informed us that they released soy-based, biodegradable balloons."

For its part, THQ said there is nothing to worry about.

"The balloons that were released are completely biodegradable," said Julia MacMedan, vice president of corporate communications for THQ. "They start the process of biodegrading as soon as they're blown up with the helium. There should not be any environmental concerns."

Balloon with promotional postcard attached. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Asked if THQ was surprised by Bay Area residents' anger, MacMedan said that, "Because the balloons are biodegradable, [people] should not be concerned about any environmental impact from the balloon release."

Further, she said, "We do not expect there will be any danger to fish or wildlife."

A FAQ site from the Balloon Council, a balloon industry trade organization, suggested that some of the outrage over the environmental effects of the GameStop stunt may be unnecessary.

"Latex is a 100 percent natural substance that breaks down both in sunlight and water." reads the FAQ from the Balloon Council, which obviously has a vested interest in people feeling that the decorations are safe. "The degradation process begins almost immediately...Research shows that under similar environmental conditions, latex balloons will biodegrade at about the same rate as a leaf from an oak tree. The actual total degradation time will vary depending on the precise conditions."

Added the Balloon Council, answering the question of what generally happens to the millions of wayward balloons that we see flying through our skies, "Research shows that most of these latex balloons...rise to an altitude of about five miles, where they freeze, breaking into spaghetti-like pieces that scatter as they return to earth. While we do know that animals occasionally eat these soft slivers of rubber, the evidence indicates that pieces ultimately pass through the digestive system without harming the animal."

THQ also said it has retained a cleanup crew to remove any debris from the Bay.

"The balloons released at the Homefront rally event today were made from a 100 percent organic product and are 100 percent biodegradable," THQ said in a statement. "The balloons have no history of causing any environmental pollution on land or in water. Although we're confident that there will be no harm to the environment, we've retained a cleanup crew to remove any potential lingering debris. This was a THQ sponsored promotion and GameStop had no involvement, whatsoever."

But environmentalists are still not happy with the situation. "It's still trash," said Ann Bauer, the director of education at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, Calif., just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. "It's biodegradable over time, but a bird can still get entangled in it right now. A sea lion could be curious about it, bite it and swallow it. It could clog their stomach and cause them to die--right now. Biodegradable takes time to happen."

And the move could be illegal. "The (California) Fish and Game code 5652 prohibits littering balloons into state waters," Patrick Foy, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Game, said in an e-mail. There are plenty of written stories about the problems associated with the release of balloons and when they are ingested."

A San Francisco resolution that urged the city to prohibit the intentional release of balloons into the air says that, among other things, dead turtles have been found washed up on beaches with balloons hanging out of their mouths and that whales are known to die from starvation by ingesting pounds of balloons and other plastics.

CNET's Elinor Mills contributed to this report.