The Story Behind Richard Branson’s “BA Can’t Get It Up” Blimp

In the vast arena of corporate rivalries, few tales are as daring, audacious, and humorous as the one that unfolded in the early hours of a London morning in 1999. Sir Richard Branson, the indomitable force behind the Virgin Group, had a reputation for orchestrating bold and attention-grabbing marketing stunts. But this particular escapade would prove to be one for the history books, as a blimp emblazoned with the cheeky proclamation “BA Can’t Get It Up” soared above the iconic London Eye. This audacious act of aerial wit was the culmination of years of friendly rivalry and a creative masterstroke that left the world both amused and bewildered.

blimp over the disassembled London Eye with a bold white caption “BA CAN’T GET IT UP!!” over red background
The BA can’t get it up blimp over London in 1999

The Prelude: A History of Rivalry

To fully grasp the significance of Sir Richard Branson’s blimp stunt, one must journey back to the late 1990s when the rivalry between Virgin Atlantic and British Airways was at its zenith. The airlines had engaged in a series of skirmishes, ranging from leaked confidential documents to cunning advertising campaigns aimed at undermining each other’s market share. BA representatives had even allegedly impersonated Virgin employees and called up Virgin customers to try to get them to switch their flights to BA as well. British Airways, the established giant, viewed Virgin’s ascent as a threat, and thus, a strategic battle of wits was waged in the skies.

British Airways had launched its “World’s Favorite Airline” campaign, setting the stage for a rivalry that would escalate over the years. Branson, never one to shy away from controversy, retaliated with witty advertisements and publicity stunts that kept the public’s attention fixated on the ongoing duel. However, it was a singular event that would mark the climax of this rivalry and etch Sir Richard Branson’s name in marketing lore forever.

The Construction Conundrum

In the autumn of 1999, London’s skyline was graced by the construction of the London Eye, a magnificent Ferris wheel towering over the River Thames. This endeavor was supported by British Airways as a title sponsor, adding yet another layer to the existing tension between the two aviation giants. As luck would have it, the London Eye encountered an unforeseen setback during its construction, a mishap that would give Branson the perfect opportunity to launch his audacious blimp stunt.

Branson’s Wake-Up Call

One fateful morning, as the sun was still nestled beneath the horizon, Sir Richard Branson received an unexpected phone call. A staffer informed him that construction crews were struggling to lift the repaired London Eye, casting a shadow of uncertainty over the ambitious project. Branson’s response was nothing short of iconic – “Send the blimp!” he exclaimed, seizing the chance to capitalize on the situation.

The Sky-High Retaliation

Within hours, the London skies were painted with a majestic blimp, proudly bearing the message “BA Can’t Get It Up.” The dual entendre resonated with the public, encapsulating both the playful jab at British Airways’ construction difficulties and the ongoing rivalry between the two airlines. As dawn broke, Londoners and tourists alike were treated to a sight both surreal and hilarious – a blimp hovering above the London Eye, a symbol of Virgin’s irreverent defiance.

The Aftermath and Legacy

The “BA Can’t Get It Up” blimp stunt reverberated across the globe, capturing headlines and sparking conversations. The audacity of the act showcased Branson’s unparalleled ability to turn adversity into an opportunity for brand exposure. As the dust settled, British Airways responded with humor, further cementing the event as a light-hearted spectacle in the annals of corporate rivalry.

In Conclusion

Sir Richard Branson’s blimp escapade over the London Eye is a story of rivalry, audacity, and marketing brilliance. The culmination of years of witty banter and strategic maneuvering, this daring stunt not only provided a moment of levity but also exemplified Branson’s unwavering commitment to pushing boundaries. As the blimp soared above the city, it etched itself into the collective memory, a testament to the power of ingenuity and the indomitable spirit of one of the world’s most renowned entrepreneurs.