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Marketing in Space: A Brief History

Large moon

Space may be seen by many as the final frontier but marketing and advertising have been leveraging its influence for decades. The last couple of years I’ve observed a spike in the number of campaigns that have been built around the subject of Space. In light of the 50th anniversary of the first spacewalk, I would like to take you on a sortie through time to look at some of the early examples of...MARKETING IN SPAAAACCCE. 

A Brief History of Space

What becomes evident with a little research is that the popularity of space is a reflection of cultural trends and interest. Firstly, the number of adverts produced appears to correlate with the number of active space missions being operated and the amount of coverage they receive in the media.

We can see in the graph below the space exploration has become a tertiary concern in US spending. 

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As a result, the public’s exposure to space missions and consequent discoveries has declined. However, in the last few years there has been a resurgence in the number of missions that have been able to capture our imagination again. Whilst NASA funding is falling as a % of US spending, a wider number of nationalities, coalitions and private enterprises now have ambitious space projects.

Landmarks in Space Travel

  • October 4, 1957: Sputnik I is launched by Soviet Union.

  • April 12, 1961: Yuri Gagarin completes the first manned space flight.
  • February 20, 1962: John Glenn becomes first American to orbit the Earth.

  • March 18, 1965: Aleksei Leonov completes the first spacewalk

  • July 20, 1969: Neil Armstrong and Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin of Apollo XI walk on the moon.

  • December 7-19, 1972: Apollo 17 mission completes the last manned mission to the moon.

  • February 7, 1984: Bruce McCandless performs man's first untethered spacewalk

  • November 20, 1988: International Space Station Launch Date

Recent and upcoming events include:

  • August 2012: Voyager 1 Spacecraft leaves the Solar System.

  • November 12, 2014: Rosetta mission lands on comet.

  • February 2015: Mars One shortlist announced for a one-way, manned mission to Mars.

  • March 2015: Plans announced to land submarine on Saturn’s moon Titan.

The Golden Age

The golden age of Space in campaigns occurred during the height of the Space Race. The general style and messaging uses space travel to draw focus on the high-tech elements of the product or service. The campaigns are tied up with the hope and ambition visible in the science fiction and media of the time. TV shows like The Jetsons and Lost in Space encapsulate this hope. Therefore, talking about space in the 50s and 60s encouraged people to think optimistically about the future.

Here are a couple of my favourites from the period.

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Technological advances in 1968 meant that soon the moon would need the touch of a domestic goddess. 
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Chrysler's 1968 advert demonstrates the rationale that the same engineering that put a rocket in space is evident in each one of Chrysler's vehicles.

1970-1990s

Whilst some seminal films about Space were created in this period – Star Wars, E.T, Alien –it appears that advertisers in the late 20th century took a step back from using it in campaigns.

There are a number of reasons for this.

Anecdotally, support for a space program has decreased since its peak in the 1960s*.  In this graph we can see a fall in public support for space exploration after 1985 into the mid-90s.

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The Challenger disaster in 1984 was a terrible shock and would have contributed to the falling confidence and appropriateness of space exploration. This fall in public opinion would have discouraged brands to attach their products to space travel. Space exploration went from being exciting to expensive and dangerous.

Compounding the issue was the fact that space was also becoming a national defence issue. Programs like the Strategic Defence Initiative – nicknamed Star Wars –removed the nascent optimism about space exploration and made space another battleground in the Cold War [the Space Race in the 1960s had been a non-violent manifestation of these tensions but this period was the first time the public would have been aware of the notion of space being militarised].

All of these factors however were not enough to stop the production of some iconic (and some less so) adverts.

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How do modern marketing teams use space?

Supported by the success of big films like Gravity and Interstellar, space agencies have begun to successfully promote their work through online channels. NASA joined Instagram in 2013; they now have over 2.5 million followers who enjoy receiving the latest images of active missions. These factors – as well as the exciting upcoming missions – mean that space exploration has become a favourable news story again.

This growth in interest is one of the reasons that space-themed campaigns are experiencing a renaissance. Increased popularity has opened the door to talk about space again but other factors have influenced the decision for brands to push forward. 

Space travel is attainable for brands

Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic program shows that space travel has moved away from being a national concern to one which businesses have become invested in. It would be remiss of me to go through an entire blog post about space without mentioning the Red Bull Stratos mission. So much has been written on this topic already but it is the perfect illustration of how space travel can now be leveraged for commercial gain.

Jose Cuervo also joined the space race on a smaller scale when they sent a Margarita to space in order to be frozen. 

Improved technology means that production teams have far greater scope to create visually stunning representations of space.

Because of the same improvement in visual effect, Space no longer receives the same reverence. Brands now have the scope to parody space travel; something that Specsavers, Heineken and Carling do brilliantly.

These examples demonstrate how space has become popular again but they all use space for fairly traditional purposes. Red Bull and Jose Cuervo use space to visualise the excitement and ingenuity of their brands. The comedic depictions of space all work because they play with the typical notion of space that the previous two examples exploit. 

Product Placement

Brands like Pizza Hut and Kodak have arranged product placements on the International Space Station. In 2001, Pizza Hut sent Vacuum packed pizzas to space and created a series of commercials about it.

The Overview Effect

The most notable change in the use of space is to express the growing concern with how treat the planet. Advertisers are taking advantage of “The Overview Effect”; something that was experienced by astronauts in the 1960s but didn’t become globally relevant until sustainability became a primary concern for consumers. 


 “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”

Neil Armstrong

Neil Armstrong’s reaction to circling the earth for the first time is a great example of the Overview Effect which is defined as “the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere.”

The WWF took advantage of this brilliantly in their Earth Day advert.

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H&M’s “Go Green, Wear Blue” Campaign is another example of brands expressing their green credentials with a creative use of the public’s understanding of the Overview Effect.

A knock-on effect of the Overview Effect and our increased exposure to space missions is that we now have a compassionate reaction the loneliness of an Astronaut’s life. Interstellar, Moon and Gravity all take advantage of this at Cinema but brands are also leveraging it.

Conclusion

The fact that people are signing up to participate in a one-way mission to Mars is incontrovertible evidence in space travel’s ability to capture the imagination of the public. Space travel will always be on the forefront of human endeavour and therefore will always be a rich vein of inspiration for advertisers and marketers looking to make a compelling campaign.

As the human risk of space expedition begins to ramp up in the light of the Mars missions, it will be interesting to see how brands respond. Will we see a return to the excitement and optimism of the 60s or continue to focus on the fragility of our own planet? Only time will tell.

*There is some evidence to show this is not actually the case. If you are interested in getting a better picture, I recommend you read a paper by The Smithsonian Institute entitled “Public Opinion Polls and Perceptions of US Human Spaceflight” (2003).