One Giant Leap for Brand Kind
Companies are sending their products into orbit and plastering their logos on spacecraft. Will space ads dull our sense of wonder about the universe?
America’s first commercial spacecraft heading to the moon looks a bit like an ATM kiosk with legs. This summer, the private space firm Intuitive Machines plans to launch its Nova-C lander from Cape Canaveral, after which the flying ATM will spend a few days hurtling through the atmosphere toward the south pole of the moon. A camera will detach to record the landing for us back on Earth—and at the bottom of the vessel, beneath an American flag, viewers will spot a logo for Columbia Sportswear. Just like NASCAR vehicles, the next big moon mission will be festooned with an ad. It’s part of a marketing deal that also includes coating the surface of the lander in Columbia Sportswear’s Omni-Heat Infinity technology, an insulating material originally designed for its jackets.
Brands have whipped up every conceivable kind of marketing campaign (underwater storefronts, toothbrushes delivered by drone), but space has historically been untouched by the ads that inundate us back on Earth. Not anymore. Space marketing is booming: Japan’s Ispace lander, which seemed poised to beat Intuitive Machines to the moon, was emblazoned with the logos for Japan Airlines, Suzuki, and the bank SMBC—that is, before it crashed into the surface of the moon in late April. Astronauts who fly on a private Axiom Space mission to the International Space Station can expect to find specially engineered champagne bottles from the French purveyor G. H. Mumm on board, intended to underscore the “avant-garde spirit” of its liquor. And Voyager Space, a private company that is building a commercial space station, has a deal with Hilton to design its living quarters as its “official hotel partner.”
What has changed is that we are firmly in an era of space capitalism. Elon Musk’s SpaceX assists in roughly two-thirds of NASA’s space launches, while Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin has so far completed six successful space-tourism missions. More quietly, a series of regulatory changes has opened the door to even more businesses: Intuitive Machines is benefiting from a NASA program called the Commercial Lunar Payload Services, which lets private companies take scientific and technological equipment to the moon. With profit margins in mind, these companies are letting brands slap their logos on spacecraft and create stunts to promote their products. There is nothing like space to spark wonder and awe, but what happens to those feelings when outer space is just as full of ads as every other facet of our lives?
Given the chance, brands will turn anything and everything into an ad. “Whether it’s in the metaverse or it’s in space, if there’s an opportunity there, if there’s value, we are going to be there,” says Anna Bager, president of the Out of Home Advertising Association of America, a group focused on ads, like billboards, that people see, well, outside their home. Space advertising stretches back to at least 1993, when a tiny Georgia-based company called Space Marketing Inc. announced plans to launch a billboard into space. America didn’t love it. One congressman warned of the prospect that “every sunrise and sunset would beam down the logo of Coke or G.M. or the Marlboro man.” Space Marketing dropped its plans, and in 2000, Congress banned “obtrusive space advertising,” which it defined as any extraterrestrial ad that can be seen with the naked eye from Earth.
That rule is still in place today, but brands are opting for simpler types of advertising: putting their product on the moon or in a space station, then filming it to show people back on Earth. A few rare marketing campaigns of this sort have popped up over the years with Russia’s space agency, but not with NASA, which refused to let astronauts endorse products or advertisers use the ISS. In the late 1990s, Pizza Hut paid to place a logo on a Russian space mission, Pepsi paid seven figures for Russian astronauts to pose beside a four-foot-high replica of its soda can, and the Israeli food brand Tnuva hired a Russian astronaut to film a 90-second commercial for one of its milk products, at a reported budget of more than $800,000 in today’s dollars.
These sorts of space ads now happen routinely, and not just because of all the for-profit companies that have entered the space business. Though working astronauts still cannot endorse products, in 2019 NASA started allowing advertisers into the space station. Since then, companies such as Adidas, Estée Lauder, and Mattel have dispatched their products to the ISS and then used the stunts for publicity. SpaceX does not appear to have sold ads for its landers—though it has floated the idea of building space billboards—but these new companies bring with them endless ad opportunities, largely because of the economic realities of space. Private space missions are a financially risky endeavor, requiring enormous amounts of money for expeditions that don’t always pan out. One of the original participants in NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program, Masten Space Systems, has already filed for bankruptcy and stopped operations.
Getting a piece of a space mission does not come cheap. Allan Finehirsh, a co-founder of Metatron, an ad firm that has represented Intuitive Machines, would not disclose terms of the agreement, but he told me that these space partnerships typically have a “seven-figure-plus base” cost (which makes a space ad roughly on par with a Super Bowl ad). A million-dollar brand partnership might pale in comparison to a lunar mission, which can stretch into the billions of dollars, but as a way to pad profit margins, companies don’t seem to see any downsides. “It’s practice for us to identify the future business models that will make human spaceflight and low-Earth-orbit destinations a sustainable business,” Tejpaul Bhatia, the chief revenue officer at Axiom Space, which conducts private missions to the ISS, told me. “Yes, branding and marketing is part of it.”
And naturally the brands get something out of it too. Missions to the moon in particular are still so novel that the images of these landers—brand logos and all—are primed to go viral. Even failed missions may not be so tragic for brands: When Japan’s Ispace lander crashed, for instance, the companies that paid to appear on it still had their logos plastered on news broadcasts across the world. It’s hard to imagine that even a space nerd who sees the Columbia Sportswear logo in space will go out and drop their next paycheck on the company’s apparel, but that’s not the point.
“Do they need us to go to space and land on the moon? Absolutely not,” Haskell Beckham, Columbia Sportswear’s vice president of innovation, told me. “Does our insulation provide a thermal benefit for the lander? Yes, it does.” If people see that it can save a spaceship from the icy temperatures of space, the company seems to believe, then maybe they’ll be more likely to buy a winter coat from Columbia. Americans’ fascination with space is powerful, and associating itself with space could be a way “for more people to recognize, certainly, that we’re a truly innovative clothing and footwear brand,” Beckham said.
Many space ads have an experimental element outside the ad itself. Bhatia, for instance, is working with Amazon to take a data center to the moon and see how it holds up. G. H. Mumm, meanwhile, says it is using its space voyage to test how its champagne tastes beyond our terrestrial borders. Other brands are content not to go all the way to space. On TikTok and YouTube, a U.K.-based start-up called Sent Into Space has dispatched items as various as blenders, ketchup bottles, and a screen playing a Michael Bublé music video up to the aerial line at which space begins, where these products are photographed and recorded for social-media content.
Because of the dramatically different temperatures and pressure levels, most consumer products don’t actually function well in space. Alex Keen, the marketing manager for Sent Into Space, told me that the company has needed to modify the power and control systems of blenders it has launched. Food is a particular challenge. “Most food doesn’t look incredibly attractive when frozen down to minus 65 degrees,” Keen said. “If we’re launching a plate of fish and chips, then each individual chip might have to be staked down with toothpicks, or parts of the food might need to be lacquered in order to replicate the effects of a deliciously cooked meal.” Taco Bell may love stunt advertising, but in all likelihood the brand does not yearn to see a Doritos Loco Taco explode at 400,000 feet.
The companies that choose to advertise in space seem to have something else in common. For many of them, “I would say, unequivocally, the CEO is a space nut,” Bhatia told me. “A good number of CEOs take meetings with me. They say things like ‘Oh, I went to space camp when I was a kid, and I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut,’ and they want to know whether they should run an ad.” If space marketing proves to be something more than a fad, it runs the risk of ruining space’s very appeal. Advertising can be so exhausting and unavoidable for consumers that perhaps saddling space with fast-food logos and corporate stunts will just dull our sense of wonder about the universe. To a certain extent, space capitalism is already doing that, as a bunch of billionaires take joyrides to the outer atmosphere. Eventually we might stop paying attention to space ads at all, just like so many of the ads that appear on TV and online. Maybe the first commercial mission to the moon will generate a viral moment for Columbia Sportswear—but will the 307th?