What Happened to Skywriting?

How skywriting rose and fell, and why its instagrammability may lead to a resurgence. 
<3 skywriting. (Reuters)

Skywriting is a rare art now. But less than a century ago, it was considered the future of advertising. 

The technique was relatively simple. Engine-heated paraffin oil mixed with exhaust to produce fluffy streams of white smoke that pilots loop-de-looped into letters on the sky’s canvas. (Pilots today are able to fly at a level altitude while skywriting.) 

The result was unlike anything people had ever seen. 

In 1922, one pilot staged a "smoke casting" demonstration over Times Square, writing a giant phone number into the sky. (Operators at the hotel on the other end of the line said they received more than 47,000 calls in under three hours, according to a New York Times article that year.

Two years later, another pilot made the first U.S. attempt at skywriting using pink and orange smoke. “Remember Flag Day” was to be scrawled for nine miles across the skies above Manhattan in June 1924. 

Skywriting became a sensation. 

Brands like Pepsi, Ford, Chrysler, and Lucky Strike flocked to the skies. Planes left trails of letters like "LSMFT," the well-known acronym that stood for "Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco." In 1940 alone, Pepsi scribbled some 2,225 skywritten messages over 48 states, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, and South America, according to the Smithsonian.  

But as the practice became more common, people began the kind of handwringing that new technology so often prompts. Mainly, they began to wonder if maybe things were better before skywriting appeared. 

The New York Times called the practice "celestial vandalism," describing a future in which the skies would be so smoke-choked that apartment dwellers on high floors would have to keep their windows closed. (One might argue that seeing Lucky Strike's letters in the sky was far less irritating than hearing them shouted repeatedly in television commercials, an approach that came in later decades.)

There was talk of cloud slicing machines that would allow for skywriting in any weather. Engineers worked to develop glowing letters for nighttime skywriting. Reporters predicted the skydrawing of elaborate illustrated ads, envisioning enormous shoes and automobiles splashed across the sky. Extraordinary palettes of colored smoke would brighten the sky in vivid reds and electric greens, they said.

Pilots dabbled in color but it never worked as well as simple white. And for all the hype, skywriting fell out of favor in a matter of decades. Americans may have been dazzled by what some called "smoke casting," but it was no match for the broadcast technology that was being developed at the same time: Television. Clear TV reception was no guarantee in those days, but skywriting was completely dependent on fine weather. 

"We have to have blue skies," said Suzanne Asbury-Oliver, an Oregon-based pilot who runs one of the last remaining full-time skywriting businesses in the country. "You couldn't say, 'I am definitely going to write at noon on Friday over Times Square,' because it might be cloudy or it might be snowing. And even if you could, you couldn't really say how many people actually saw it."

The allure of better reaching distinct audiences pushed advertisers to TV rather than to skywriting. Radio and print were already defaults. And there were other limitations to buying ad spots in the sky. In 1961, The New York Times described a skywriter who sloppily put out a message that didn't make sense, only to fly back up, strike a line through the thing, and begin again. 
 
There were few skywriters left by the early 1950s. But in the early 1970s, in a burst of nostalgia, Pepsi decided to start skywriting again with a single plane from its earlier fleet. That's how Asbury-Oliver got her start in 1980. The red, white, and blue biplane she flew for Pepsi is now on display at the Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. "I flew that for 23 years for them, and it's hanging up there just like I left it the last flight," she told me. "It still has my cushions and my headset."

Presented by

Adrienne LaFrance

Adrienne LaFrance is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Technology Channel. Previously she worked as an investigative reporter for Honolulu Civil Beat, Nieman Journalism Lab, and WBURMore

Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gawker, The Awl, and several other publications. 

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