This is an excerpt from Arguable, a Globe Opinion newsletter from columnist Jeff Jacoby. Sign up to get Arguable in your inbox each week.
In a new essay for The Atlantic, Michael Waters surveys the current state of advertising in outer space. He isn’t quite sure he likes it. “There is nothing like space to spark wonder and awe,” he observes, “but what happens to those feelings when outer space is just as full of ads as every other facet of our lives?”
Space advertising has come a long way. Commercials filmed well beyond the surly bonds of Earth have been around for more than a generation. “In the late 1990s,” writes Waters, “Pizza Hut paid to place a logo on a Russian space mission, Pepsi paid seven figures for Russian astronauts to pose beside a four-foot-high replica of its soda can, and the Israeli food brand Tnuva hired a Russian astronaut to film a 90-second commercial for one of its milk products.”
In 2017, KFC decided to promote its “spicy, crispy Zinger chicken sandwich” by sending it to outer space. Working with World View Enterprises, an Arizona space technology firm, Colonel Sanders and his team designed a satellite in the shape of a fried chicken bucket and launched it on a high-altitude Stratollite balloon system. KFC’s “Zinger 1″ mission reached an altitude of 67,143 feet — all recorded on video, of course. Earlier, Toshiba had done something similar with a red armchair, using balloons to send it to the stratosphere in a promotion for its high-definition TVs: “Armchair viewing, redefined,” the tagline read.
Numerous ads and marketing campaigns have made use of the International Space Station. Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin shanked a golf ball from the service module of the ISS in 2017, part of a spot for the Canadian golf company Element 21. “Companies such as Adidas, Estée Lauder, and Mattel have dispatched their products to the ISS and then used the stunts for publicity,” Waters notes.
Now comes the obvious next step: advertising on the Moon.
Sometime this summer, the commercial space company Intuitive Machines will launch its Nova-C lander on a mission to the lunar south pole. The project is being undertaken in connection with NASA’s Artemis project, which is gearing up to return a human crew to the Moon as early as 2025. It is also partnering with Columbia Sportswear: The company’s insulation material, originally invented to line ski jackets and other cold-weather gear, will be protecting Nova-C’s outer panels. As the lander descends to the lunar surface, a camera will detach to record the moment and beam it back to earth. And what viewers will see from 240,000 miles away is the American flag above the logos of two American companies: Intuitive Machines and Columbia.
That doesn’t begin to exhaust the limits of what marketing creators are thinking up. According to Business Insider, a technology startup called Geometric Energy Corporation is devising a satellite meant to function as a sort of billboard in high space. One side of the satellite, which will be ferried into orbit by Elon Musk’s SpaceX Falcon 9, will have a pixelated display screen where advertisements and logos will appear. But the satellite, a cube measuring only 4 inches on each side, will not be visible from Earth. Instead, an attached selfie stick will film the display screen and the footage will be streamed to YouTube, Twitch, or other platforms.
On the other hand, another company working with cube satellites is thinking about space-based advertising that would be visible to viewers on Earth. In January 2019, the Russian company StartRocket claimed to be working on a way to program the little cube-sats to create displays that would appear in the nocturnal sky. A video illustrating the concept depicts commercial logos floating in space; StartRocket said the technology would also enable governments to flash urgent notifications during emergencies.
Whether or not luminous ads in space actually come to fruition remains to be seen. But advertisers are always seeking new means of getting their brands and messages before consumers’ eyes. As consumers’ eyes are drawn spaceward, innovators will inevitably look for ways to attract them.
“Will space ads dull our sense of wonder about the universe?” asks The Atlantic. “If space marketing proves to be something more than a fad, it runs the risk of ruining space’s very appeal.”
Fears that advertising will sully the majesty of space is as old as science fiction. In 1945, the science fiction and mystery writer Fredric Brown published “Pi in the Sky,” a story in which hundreds of stars appear to be shifting their position in the heavens in defiance of astronomical laws. The anomaly turns out to be the work of someone projecting an illusion of stars being rearranged to spell the message: “USE SNIVELY’S SOAP.”
Some years later, in his story “Buy Jupiter!”, Isaac Asimov imagined aliens purchasing the largest planet in the Solar System in order to transform it into an interstellar billboard.
I am in no more of a hurry than anyone else to see glowing ads for Nike or Apple drifting across the sky above the Lincoln Memorial or Yosemite’s El Capitan. Nor would I want to hear NASA’s Mission Control, counting down the seconds, announce “3 … 2 … 1 … We have liftoff, brought to you by Taco Bell!”
But I’m not worried that advertising “runs the risk of ruining space’s very appeal.” The appearance of commercial messages in a place where they were previously unknown may be, for some, unwelcome or displeasing. But what evidence is there that ads will destroy interest in something that is inherently interesting?
Consider: NASCAR racers and their cars have been festooned with sponsors’ ads for decades, but that doesn’t seem to dissuade tens of millions of fans from tuning in each season. It wasn’t that long ago that athletes in the Big Four professional leagues never wore uniforms with advertising logos; now sponsors can buy commercial patches on NBA, NHL, and Major League Baseball jerseys. “What was once jarring — like a Bibigo logo on the iconic Lakers jersey or a Nike swoosh atop the Yankees pinstripes — now feels normal,” Axios remarked last year.
When I was a child, it was rare to see anyone wearing t-shirts or sweatpants with commercial logos printed on them. Today people routinely wear clothing that doubles as advertising — and such clothing has grown more popular and eye-catching than ever.
Of course there are places so sacred or significant that to treat them as advertising platforms would be a desecration. The Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National Cemetery is not going to be defiled with a Starbucks come-on. No auto dealers will fly banners from Mt. Rushmore to promote their Presidents Day sales.
But the idea that advertising is inherently degrading is misguided. Like so much else that makes life in a free society worthwhile, advertising is a form of liberty and property rights. It is one of the hallmarks of a vital economy, facilitating the flow of information that is essential to a marketplace in which millions of people are constantly buying, selling, comparing, and trading.
Advertising represents freedom. Freedom signifies choice. Choice enriches our lives. Sure, some ads are tacky or tasteless. But on the whole society is better off when producers and vendors are free to market their goods and services in creative ways. A commercial logo on a lunar lander isn’t a warning sign that something has gone awry with our values. It is a reminder of how unstoppably driven human beings are to engage and communicate with each other — a drive that doesn’t stop at the edge of the atmosphere, and will one day reach beyond the solar system.