Billboards in Space, Accomplices in Enclosure


November 4, 2006


Browse in Advertising Commons

The greatest ally of the corporate trespasser is our human tendency to forget.  So long as a violation lingers in the memory there is a possibility of doing something about it.  But when outrage dies, and along with it the memory that things could be different, then the deed is done and the enclosure is complete.

How many people today remember when streetcars traversed our major cities, until oil and automobile companies contrived to do them in?  How many think, when they peruse the offerings on commercial television, “Wait a minute.  Those airwaves are ours.” Not that long ago, people would be outraged at the thought of junk food ads and vending machines in public schools.  Now they are a new normal, and are greeted with a shrug.

The corporate food industry is desperate to achieve this new normality with genetically modified foods.  (If it can’t bring it about legally it will do so in practice, as GMO seeds infect fields with traditional varieties until the process can’t be reversed.)  The big telecoms know that if they can just get their hands on the internet for a while they can turn it into a version of the old railroads in South Africa with first, second and third class seats.  Pretty soon there’d be another shrug.

Then there is outer space,  that vast realm of mystery and promise that to the arrested minds in the marketing industry is just a blank billboard waiting to be filled.  In 1993, a company called Space Marketing had the idea of launching a mile-wide raft with the Olympic rings as an ad for the 1996 Atlanta games.  Special glasses would be needed to see the rings – as with the old 3-D movies – but it didn’t take a genius to see where this was headed.  The raft didn’t go up.

Commercial logos have, however. SpaceShipOne, a private rocket ship funded by Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, had a NASCAR-like proliferation of them: M&Ms, Champ Car World Series, 7Up and Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson’s space venture.  The former Soviets actually have been the leaders – if that’s the word – in pimping outer space. Back in 1996, it sold space to Pepsi on the Mir space station for a four-foot can.  Four years later Pizza Hut tacked a 30-foot logo on a Proton rocket in Kazakhstan.

Do you think there are no eager-beaver admen out there staring wistfully at the moon?

There have been continuing efforts to turn the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) into a billboard delivery system, so far unsuccessful. But the wheels are turning. At MIT, which is a talent farm for the space program, a group of students is trying to finance a research satellite by selling ad space on the side.  Prices range from $35 to $250 per square centimeter; the hope is to raise $500,000 by next year.

“We needed more funding and realized that we’re sending up this satellite into orbit with all this space on board used for nothing,” one PhD candidate told the Boston Globe. “So why not sell it to people who want to express a message?”

Yes, why not?  To someone who has grown up in America over the last two decades, it’s an understandable question.  Our terrestrial space is full of ads. People offer up their own bodies via logos on their clothes.  Why not logos on the side of a research satellite as well? And as funding for education and research gets cut, the money has to come from somewhere.  Soon people forget that it could come from anywhere except ads.

As below, so above. What we are down here we will be up there.  Already space is filling up with launch debris.  Why not ad trash as well?  To see a spacecraft as a Pepsi logo is not an innate human trait. It comes from socal conditioning, and forgetfulness. To question the present we need a reference point in memory of something different. Take that away, and all that’s left is complicity with a self-reinforcing status quo.