Friday, December 15

Banners in Space? Don't Laugh …

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Space missions have become a little ho-hum, right? As we saw with Apollo 13 and Challenger, they only really grab us when something explodes. So would you be phased if an orbiting satellite unfurled an advertising billboard large enough to eclipse the full moon?

The technology exists. Space Marketing Inc. based in Roswell, Georgia was ready to rock in 1996 with a 1.6 km-long mylar promo for the Atlanta Olympics. Visible for thirty days and nights, the banner would have circled the earth in near orbit before burning up (mostly) on re-entry.

Atlanta’s Mayor said ‘no’ and overwhelming public opinion backed him to the hilt. Revulsion at the idea was already so strong that three years earlier, the ‘Space Advertising Prohibition Act’ had been introduced into Congress. It stated that: ‘the use of outer space for advertising purposes is not an appropriate use… and should be prohibited’.

Today, opposition to the plan remains widespread, with many organisations voicing their concern. One is the International Dark-Sky Association, which has the quaint aim of designing cities to let us view the stars without having to travel to Ice Station Zebra.

Carl Sagan, the famous astronomer, considered space advertising ‘an abomination’ (though wasn’t he the guy who said it was OK to nuke the moon?).

Objections to the idea are aesthetic (logos drifting lazily across summer sunsets), technical (interference with astronomical observation) and philosophical (viewing is not optional).

All arguments are strengthened by the prospect of proliferation and expansion of banners as well as their launch into higher orbits to be visible for longer and to more people.

So what are the benefits? Space Marketing Inc originally claimed that its banner transport vehicles would be designed to monitor the ozone layer. But existing satellites already do this. The company also said it would not launch inappropriate images like golden arches – preferring ‘some sort of environmental symbol’.

Crippling irony aside, it’s hard to imagine Space Marketing Inc knocking back up to $30 million if their sole fast food client wished to send up the clowns. And why wouldn’t it? Under the ‘Space Advertising Prohibition Act’, the proposed maximum penalty for ‘launching a payload containing any material to be used for the purposes of space advertising’ is also $30 million.

Divide that by nine billion viewers and you get a per capita cost of much less than the flimsiest carpet-cleaning flyer.

Space Marketing Inc’s strongest defence is that space advertising a way to finance research in a time of shrinking government funding. It’s true that NASA is strapped for cash, though not as much as some.

Pizza Hut paid around $1 million to put its logo on a Russian rocket. After years of political intrigue, the logo finally flew in 2000, but strangely, less than 15% of the fee made it to the country’s space agency.

True this sort of deal is in its infancy, but if computer firms can subsidise schools and phone companies can name stadiums, is it such a stretch for future weather satellites to tow ‘Drizabone’ ads?

Research on this topic revealed no ecological assessments of a sky full of highly reflective icons. This is surprising, since more creatures than we know use the moon to navigate.

The possibilities are intriguing. Could a huge Bert Newton frighten the Melbourne Botanical Gardens’ troublesome bats into Bass Strait? Surely our bogong moths could be enticed from Canberra by a glowing Foster’s ‘F’?

The outrage over space advertising raises another interesting question. Scale aside, how different is it to skywriting? Or messages towed by biplanes? Our national highway is festooned with hill-mounted billboards telling us how many nanometres to our next Happy Meal.

Where is the movement to reclaim the views we used to have here on Earth? How many of us would readily swap a thousand maddening web banners for one really big floating one?

Legislation is the obvious counter to Space Marketing Inc’s initiatives. But laws change to suit the times. No one can say with certainty that economic rationalism will stop at the stratosphere. Rest assured the GST won’t be putting too many Australians on Mars. If we want to go, maybe it would be better to ‘go Greyhound’.

Though purists could say that even Sputnik was a form of visual pollution, most would argue that the technological benefits more than outweighed the inconvenience of an extra speck in the night sky. How we balance the future costs and benefits of space use will remain a judgement call. The danger is we won’t exercise our prerogative.

Theoretically, the power to dictate corporate behavior resides in every consumer. In practice, certain multinationals are doing just as well as if they’d never been involved in oil spills, protestor executions and child exploitation.

If every customer of these companies had switched brands in protest, they’d be out of business. The reason they’re not is apathy. As with governments, we get the companies we deserve.

While casting around for a Russian rocket, Pizza Hut also considered putting its logo on the moon. Logistics alone (it had to be bigger than Texas to be visible from Earth) put the plan on hold.

Here then is an attitude for consumers to assess. Will we revert to the comforting fug of our local fish and chip shops or hurl our dollars into the sky?

It really is up to us.


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