Ill Wind Blows for BMW on Storm Promotion

An unusual German custom—letting people pay for the right to assign their names to weather systems—has created a public relations nightmare for BMW’s Mini Cooper brand.

BMW asked Sassenbach Advertising, a Munich ad agency, to pay $650 to put the names “Cooper” and “Minnie” on an approved list for naming high- and low-pressure systems during 2012. The Meteorological Institute of the University of Berlin, which maintains the list, chose “Cooper” for a high-pressure cold snap that began on Jan. 24. German weather reports promptly began referring to the cold wave as “the Cooper.”

Ordinarily it would have been a simple and inexpensive promotional stunt. But then “the Cooper” turned deadly, with frigid temperatures claiming scores of lives. As of Feb. 2 authorities said more than 100 people had died in Poland, Romania, and Ukraine, and hundreds of others were hospitalized with frostbite as temperatures fell to nearly -33C in some places.

With the cold weather forecast to continue for several more days—and weather reports continuing to brand it with the name of BMW’s small car—the automaker on Feb. 2 issued the following statement: “It was not intentional, and you cannot tell in advance what a weather system will do. That it took on catastrophic proportions and claimed so many victims, we do regret very much.”

The Meteorological Institute has used men’s and women’s names to designate weather systems since the 1950s, just as the U.S. Weather Service gives names to hurricanes. But in 2002 the institute decided to let the public choose the names, charging a fee to get a place on the approved list: $390 for a high-pressure system and $260 for a low-pressure system. (Low-pressure systems cost less because they tend to produce clouds and rain.)

The institute says more than 1,700 customers—mostly individuals, but also some businesses seeking to promote their brands—have participated in the program. When the institute doesn’t collect enough names to last the year, it auctions off the remaining slots on eBay.

And what about “Minnie”? The name is still on the list to be assigned to a low-pressure system this year.

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