Trial balloon is a term that originates with the testing of hot air balloons by Joseph and Etienne Montgolfiere in 1782. Before getting into a hot air balloon and risking life and limb, the Montgolfiere brothers wanted to make sure that the hot air balloon would really work. They released several trial hot air balloons unmanned, and then in 1783 they even tested a trial balloon containing several farm animals, to make sure the air at higher levels was safe to breathe. Since the farm animals arrived back on earth safely, the Montgolfieres assumed it was safe to try a manned expedition in a hot air balloon.
From the history of the term, the English language has developed many uses for the term. It’s a way of detecting the safety of something (like sending animals on spaceships) and more often, the way of “testing the waters,” to see if an idea, product, a political candidate, or diversity of other things are actually worth developing. In a way it can be a form of market research to determine just how viable something is.
In politics, for instance, a person interested in running for office might send up a trial balloon by letting out rumors of running for office. They then evaluate, either through surveys, or through public reaction, just how viable their campaign for a particular office might be. Another type of trial balloon in politics is to venture an idea that a politician or group of politicians might by trying out to see if they should push for a law based on the idea. If the public seems to respond with favor to the idea, then the politicians may go forth with trying to create a law or policy change since they believe there is support for it.
In product manufacture, invention and the like, companies may use a trial balloon to determine if a product is worth inventing or making. They can use a press release stating that they’re “working on” a product, and then gauge consumer and media response to determine if the product would be something customers want. If consumer response is poor, it can save people the cost of actually producing something that won’t sell well.
Another way of using trial balloons is to set price. This can be used in real estate, particularly, to see just how potential buyers react to certain prices. A person could float a trial balloon number of a set amount for a house to see if the price is too high, too low or just right. Car retailers may do the same thing, as can any other seller. A small quantity of products may be offered at a set price to see if they “move.” If they’re sold quickly, any seller may think about raising prices, but if they don’t sell at all the product might be repackaged and sold at a lower price.