Advertising in Space

ByAmanda Onion

July 11, 2000 -- Imagine if Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin had made those memorable first footprints on the moon 31 years ago and then, like athletes brandishing their brand-name sponsors, had pulled out a Coca Cola banner and unfurled it for the world to see.

For the cash-strapped Russian space program, the idea may not seem so outlandish. In fact, the Russian proton rocket that will blast off toward the International Space Station early Wednesday morning is emblazoned with a 30-foot tall Pizza Hut logo.

“Pizza Hut has really been relaunching itself for the last couple of years and this is kind of a mythic symbol of what we’ve done with our logo,” says Pizza Hut president Mike Rawlings.

This is hardly the first time space and advertisers have mixed.

Milk And Pepsi

In 1996 Pepsi paid the Russian aerospace program a seven-figure sum to have cosmonauts inflate a man-sized replica of a soda can aboard the Mir space station. In 1997 Russian cosmonauts filmed a commercial for an Israeli milk company aboard the Mir. And back in the early NASA years, Tang capitalized on the fact that right-stuff astronauts sometimes sipped the orange drink in space.

As John Pike, director of Space Policy at the Federation of American Scientists, says about Russia’s advertising in space, “Why not, what the heck, who cares?”

Although NASA has taken steps toward privatizing some of its program — space shuttle operations are now mostly run by an umbrella management group of private companies — the idea of placing ads on its space shuttles hasn’t really flown. Currently NASA does not permit advertisements on its spacecraft.

“The Russians have a perfect right to advertise, “ says Brian Welch, director of media services at NASA. “But for our part, we don’t think it would be the right approach to put corporate logos on U.S. taxpayer-bought spacecraft.”

Some representatives in congress believe NASA is being too closed-minded about the matter.

“I think NASA is interested in its mystique and unfortunately its mystique becomes more important than its performance,” says Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif. “It’s ironic that the Russians are teaching us about commercialism.”

Matter of Money

The issue may be more about necessity than principle.

Although NASA has streamlined its budget in recent years under the motto of “faster, better, cheaper,” the U.S. agency’s funds still far outmatch Russia’s current annual space budget of just $100 million. Financial trouble was the main reason behind the nearly two-year delay of the Zvezda module launch. And the agency is keeping its ailing space station, the Mir, aloft by sending a wealthy U.S. tourist to the station for a price of tens of millions of dollars.

“NASA’s never as broke as Russia and I don’t think they’d ever see the need to resort to painting logos on the shuttle,” says Pike.

Still, Welch says that NASA is looking into ways of involving private companies that emphasize resource sharing, rather than direct payment for advertisements. For example, the agency has entered a deal with Dreamtime, a high definition television company, which allows the company to promote its technology through the space program (the company features a Web link on NASA’s Internet home page). In return Dreamtime will supply NASA with high definition televisions and broadcast capabilities from space.

Drawing the Line

Welch says that other similar partnerships are in the works and will be announced soon. But he says that the possibilities are quite dim that NASA will follow Russia’s lead and start highlighting advertising on its spacecraft and missions.

“Some people expected we might eventually cover the shuttle with advertisements or dress astronauts up with logos like race car drivers,” he says. “But that isn’t going to happen.”

Meanwhile, the Russian space agency and Pizza Hut are planning for the next phase in their marketing deal. When the Russian Soyuz rocket makes a return trip to the International Space Station, the company will pay to cater a pizza party in high orbit.

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