From Space Food Sticks to logos on the moon: A brief history of advertising in space
Elon Musk's company, SpaceX, made history this week when it successfully launched the world's most powerful operational rocket into space. But a shiny red convertible ultimately stole the show.
The Tesla Roadster — with an astronaut dummy strapped into the driver's seat — hitched a ride to the solar system with the Falcon Heavy. According to Musk, the car could be cruising through deep space for hundreds of millions of years to come.
It didn't take long for images of the car floating high above Earth's stratosphere to overtake the footage of the launch on social media.
The marketing stunt was a coup for Musk's electric car company, Tesla, but it's not the first time companies have used space to sell their products.
'Space Food Sticks': Interstellar ads in the 60s
Companies have been eager to capitalize on space exploration since the earliest days of the U.S. space program, under U.S. President John F. Kennedy.
"That was the first time you really saw a big push around brands trying to get in on some of that magic," says Susan Krashinsky Robertson, a marketing reporter at the Globe and Mail.
One such company was Pillsbury, who came out with Space Food Sticks, a snack food they worked hard to associate with U.S. astronauts. They went so far as to market the snack as an "energy food developed … under a government contract in support of the U.S. Aerospace program."
Tang was another brand that quickly latched on to space travel. The powdered drink famously claimed to be "chosen for the Gemini astronauts," who were shown in commercials consuming the drink in zero gravity.
Ad sponsorships in space?
As the decades progressed, companies began to look for ways to actually send their products into space.
While NASA has strict rules against advertising sponsorship, Russia's rules are much more relaxed, and companies have paid millions to take advantage of that opportunity.
One such company was PepsiCo, who paid $5 million US to have a replica of its soda can floated outside the Mir space station by Russian cosmonauts.
Pizza Hut paid more than $1 million US to have its logo placed on a Russian rocket — and even delivered a pizza to the International Space Station in 2001.
Russia also has a history of selling ad space on its cosmonauts' spacesuits, much like today's soccer jersey sponsorship deals, according to freelance tech writer Neel V. Patel.
But there's a limit to how far companies can take their space advertising stunts.
'Obstructive Space Advertising'
In 1993, a company called Space Marketing Inc. made headlines when it announced plans to build a massive billboard in Low Earth orbit.
"[They] wanted to basically launch a billboard into orbit, as bright and as big as the moon looks like to us, here on the surface," says Patel.
Unsurprisingly, the project faced immense logistical challenges — not least of which being that such a billboard would be quickly destroyed by orbital debris. It was ultimately abandoned.
But the billboard idea caught the attention of U.S. Congress, which responded by passing a law banning "obtrusive advertising" in space.
I imagine we're going to see a lot of challenges to those laws moving forward.- Neel V. Patel, freelance technology reporter
"Anything that you can see with your naked eye, or perhaps with a low-powered binoculars or telescopic equipment, is not allowed [in the U.S.]," explains Patel.
The United Nations eventually took notice of the issue as well. In 2001, the UN issued a resolution to "consider the issue of international co-operation in limiting obtrusive space advertising."
Still, Patel notes that outside the U.S., there are very few laws in place to prevent this type of advertising.
The future of interstellar marketing
While SpaceX gained notoriety this week with the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket, several other major private companies are also working hard to develop their own advanced space technology.
As the private industry continues to grow, Krashinsky Robertson and Patel both predict a boom in space advertising.
"I do think we may see more of this in the future, since you have more private companies reaching into space exploration in a way that hasn't been the case before," says Krashinsky Robertson.
What we're seeing with Elon Musk putting his Tesla Roadster into space, that's perhaps the starkest example of this trend so far.- Neel V. Patel, freelance technology reporter
The company's scheme involves selling companies the chance to project their logos onto the surface of its lunar rover on the moon. It would be a sort of makeshift lunar billboard that could be photographed and used to sell its products back on earth.
According to Patel, ispace probably isn't breaking any international laws with this particular marketing plan.
But he says fierce competition could encourage companies to push the envelope even further in years to come.
"Right now, what we're seeing with Elon Musk putting his Tesla Roadster into space, that's perhaps the starkest example of this trend so far," says Patel.
"There are these laws on the books right now, especially when it comes to the U.S., but I imagine we're going to see a lot of challenges to those laws moving forward."
To hear more about the history of space advertising, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.