This week an Ohio attorney will present a paper, "In Defense of Advertising in Space," at the International Astronautical Conference, in which he argues a congressional ban on space billboards is unjustified --and space ads should be permitted out of respect for private property and free speech.
"I have been doing some research on space law and I came upon this issue, and virtually everyone who had written had just assumed this is despicable and we need to ban it as effectively and soon as possible," said J.H. Huebert, an attorney based in Columbus. He spoke with Ad Age on a call from Valencia, Spain, where the conference is being held.
He and Walter Block, an economics professor and Ph.D. at Loyola University New Orleans, took the contrarian view, penning an argument on why restrictions on space billboards visible from Earth are groundless. But he doesn't expect the paper to be popular at the conference. Congress enacted a ban on "obtrusive space advertising" in 2000. (Tax dollars at work, folks.)
The paper argues that from an aesthetic standpoint, similar forms of advertising already exist -- on blimps or, in a sort of reverse scenario, the recent visible-from-above Maxim cover reproduction on a 75-by-100-foot patch of desert about 35 miles south of Las Vegas that was meant to be viewed on Google Earth. The law has never recognized a right to a view, the authors said, and there is not yet an international ban on space advertising.
The uproar in '93
The last time there was a brouhaha over an orbiting billboard was in 1993, when a plan surfaced from Space Marketing to launch a mile-wide raft displaying the Olympic rings into low orbit in preparation for the 1996 Atlanta games. The catch was that earthlings would need special glasses to see the rings, which could be given out with the purchase of a sponsor's product. The reported cost? $15 million to $30 million.
"The concern," recalled Mike Lawson, who was CEO of Space Marketing, "was what would follow. Is someone going to do something bigger and better? I think [the concern] was unfounded since it would have had to be miles large to see something like a logo, to do something that would pique someone's interest enough to buy a product."
But the idea set off an uproar; the editor in chief of this magazine dashed off a column condemning such practices.
"The notion of shooting the world's biggest ad into space would be humorous -- it was announced around April 1, so maybe it's a clever April Fool's joke -- if the space ad didn't have the potential of creating a constellation-size black eye for the ad industry," wrote Rance Crain in the July 5, 1993, issue of Advertising Age.
Ad group opposed
The Outdoor Advertising Association of America, for its part, was against such tactics then and remains opposed today. "We believe in strict spacing between billboards on Earth; we don't believe in billboards in space," said Nancy Fletcher, OAAA president-CEO.
Mr. Lawson, who is now the president of Techsphere Systems International, which builds airships, chuckled when told of the paper supporting the right to launch space billboards. But he said he believes there could be benefits for all. "Putting ads on the sides of an international space station, if someone's willing to pay for it, it can help offset the cost of going to space," he said. While he's now out of the ad business, he noted that not all of Space Marketing's investors are. Where'd they end up? The blimp business.
Notable Space Ad-Ventures
1993: Arnold Schwarzenegger buys an ad on the side of a rocket to promote "Last Action Hero."
1996: Pepsi pays Russia to float a can outside the Mir space station.
2000: Pizza Hut puts its logo on side of Proton rocket in Kazakhstan and delivers the first pizza to space.
2001: Lego promotes its "Life on Mars" set by sending it into space-along with 300 Lego aliens-on a Russian expedition.
2002: Pepsi considers giving away a ride on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft, and 'N Sync's Lance Bass looks for sponsors to pay his way. Both plans fizzle.
2006: A Russian astronaut is expected to whack a golf ball into orbit off the International Space Station as part of a promotion for Element 21, a golf-equipment manufacturer.