In 2008, Dave Carroll, a Canadian guitarist and songwriter, flew with United Airlines from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Omaha, Nebraska with a stop at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. During the layover at O’Hare a fellow passenger saw the baggage handlers throwing baggage including Carroll’s precious guitar.

Sure enough, when they arrived in Omaha the singer found that his $3500 Taylor guitar was broken. He complained to three United Airlines employees who showed complete indifference to the problem. He filed a claim for compensation which United rejected because they did not receive it within the “standard 24-hour timeframe”.

For nine months Carroll tried every avenue he could at United but his claim was rejected at every turn. So he wrote a song. He had asked himself, “if Michael Moore was a singer-songwriter, what would he do?” The country-style song was called ‘United Breaks Guitars’ and was performed by Carroll and his band, the Sons of Maxwell. They made a humorous video to go with the song and posted it on Youtube on July 6 2009. Within a day it had had 150,000 views. In the next two years this climbed to over 10 million hits. One of the lines in the song goes, “I should have flown with someone else, or gone by car, ’cause United breaks guitars.”

It was a PR disaster for United, who belatedly offered the songwriter compensation but by now he was a media sensation on the back of the viral video. He was invited onto TV chat shows, became a sought-after speaker at customer service conferences and he went on to write a book with the same title as the song. In January 2012, Carroll and “United Breaks Guitars” were featured in the CBC/CNBC documentary Customer (Dis)Service.

Taylor Guitars jumped at the chance to get some positive publicity and offered David a new guitar. Meanwhile it was reported that the United stock price sank 10% following the uptake of the video knocking some $180m off the value of the company.

For service providers the lesson is clear – treat complaining customers with respect – especially Canadian songwriters.

For marketers there are several insights. If you are not getting your message across then try a different medium. The viral video is a potent opportunity and a potent threat. And remember that in communication, humour and ridicule are formidable tools.

About the author

Paul Sloane is the author of The Leader’s Guide to Lateral Thinking Skills and The Innovative Leader. He writes, talks and runs workshops on lateral thinking, creativity and the leadership of innovation. Find more information at



Featured image via Pexels.