The great ad-space race: the history of space advertising

There are very few places left in the world that advertising hasn’t poked its unwelcome way into – and no one knows that better than advertisers. While most have switched from trying to find new spaces in the real world to hawking stuff in the virtual one (try clothes in VR! Buy a holographic Coke!), some are gazing at the night sky, and thinking “wouldn’t that look better with a massive logo in the middle?”.

The benefits of advertising in space are manifold: the ad would be visible to enormous swathes of people for considerable amounts of time, it would be noticeable to anyone who looked upwards for any reason, and despite the costs of venturing into space, the size and noticeability of the ad could make it cheaper, eyeball-for-eyeball, than some more traditional formats.

As US Congressman Jim Jeffords put it in 1993: “If advertisers are willing to pay $1.7 million for a minute of ad time during the Super Bowl, it's frightening to imagine how much they might pay to have their ad seen by half of the world for 15 days.“

Jeffords was responding to a plan by Space Marketing Inc, appropriately of Roswell (…Georgia), to create an enormous inflatable billboard that would be seen from Earth for about two weeks. It wasn’t going to be especially far away: around 150 miles, but that puts it well above the Kármán line and therefore technically in outer space.

The billboard was to be made from mylar, otherwise known as that foil-like stuff they make helium birthday balloons from. However, while the appearance of a giant ’IT’S A GIRL’ would have been pretty distracting (not to mention confusing), it would still have been infinitely less irritating than an advert. 

Image of a mylar balloon

Imagine one of these, only much bigger, and in space (Image credit: Lidya Nada on Unsplash)

Unfazed by the possibility of being pariahs to half the world, no less than 11 companies apparently contacted Space Marketing Inc to express interest, and for a time it looked like a set of Olympic rings a mile wide would become the first ever space billboard, to promote the Atlanta 1996 games. The projected cost of $30m seems pretty reasonable by modern-day standards, considering NBC alone had TV and digital ad earnings of $900m during just the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. Yes, OK, the value of the dollar has changed a bit, but it still would have been cheap for a world-first.

Nonetheless, it didn’t happen: as reported by the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space in its fascinating 2001 report on ‘obtrusive space advertising,’ this “potentially most devastating proposal” would have “obliterated most astronomical observations” being done by scientists the world over, and would also have been “estimated to receive some 10,000 impacts of space debris per day, with associated debris proliferation” (space junk is enough of a problem as it is).

However, neither of these very solid reasons was the one that killed the original Space Billboard – as you might expect from an advertising project, it came down to money. Neither the original plan nor the updated Olympic plan “were able to attract the required funding”, said the UN with palpable glee. 

Back down to Earth?

In the same report, the UN noted that “most [theoretical] space advertising is likely to greatly outlast the enterprise that launched it”. This is certainly the case with the 1993 plan, whose infamy has long outlived the company that spawned it. Indeed, the whole idea of advertising in space seems stubbornly unwilling to die: it’s popped up many times since the contentious mylar billboard of doom.

This is despite the US Government’s best efforts. The FAA has effectively banned obtrusive space advertising, defined as “advertising in outer space that is capable of being recognized by a human being on the surface of the Earth without the aid of a telescope or other technological device”. However, the US doesn’t own space, which potentially leaves the door open for other countries to get there first.

Companies like Japan’s Ispace Inc, for instance. Ispace was widely reported to be planning what would essentially be “billboards on the moon” by the year 2020. Japan is part of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states that while countries can’t claim bits of space, they’re free to make use of it as long as they don’t cause (or, realistically, as long as they clean up) any damage. So in theory, they’d be okay to go ahead with lunar advertising.

Mock up of Ispace lunar lander

A mockup of Ispace’s planned lunar lander (Image credit: Ispace)

However, while Ispace Inc is indeed planning a major moon-related project and has raised the required funding – being shortlisted for a Google Lunar XPRIZE in the process – the whole thing has apparently been very misconstrued. A company spokesperson told Techradar:

“Our core business is to deliver customer payloads to the moon and collect data about resources on the lunar surface. The $94.5 million we raised in our Series A round will be used to spearhead our first two exploration missions to the moon. 

“As part of these missions, we will offer advertising and sponsorship opportunities for private companies. However, we will not be installing any billboards on the Moon and no advertising services we offer will be visible from Earth.” (Emphasis ours).

Wait, so what’s all that money for? And what advertising services are they referring to if not lunar logos? 

“We’re exploring the possibility of projecting a temporary, unobtrusive digital display on the side of our small lunar lander as it sits on the lunar surface for a unique photo opportunity with the Earth in the background. The surface of the lander that would potentially have a temporary projected image will likely be smaller than 4 feet (height and width). However, we understand the challenge involved in this project, so it’s just a concept at this stage.”

Haven’t space ads basically already happened?

Ispace’s real plans are part of a wider trend of allowing advertising on products related to or headed to space, without going as far as the infamous space billboard. In this format, space advertising has been around for a long time. For instance, in 1990, Japanese TV network Tokyo Broadcasting System (TBS) – creators of Takeshi’s Castle and therefore no strangers to bonkers stunts – paid millions for one of its journalists to get a seat on the Soviet Soyuz mission to the Mir space station.

The journalist, Toyohiro Akiyama, became the first Japanese person to go into space as a result – but more importantly for our purposes, the sponsorship allowed TBS to put its logo on the spacecraft.

As the Washington Post put it at the time: “For the Soviets, the tie-in with Japanese TV offered a chance to move forward on commercializing the Russian space program. Indeed, the Soyuz rocket was so commercialized it looked like a flying billboard when it blasted off Sunday. Its nose cone and fins were festooned with the logos of TBS and other Japanese corporate sponsors, including a toothpaste firm and a producer of paper diapers.”

That said, the logos-on-spaceships model does seem to be gaining traction, with NASA saying recently that it’s exploring all kinds of commercial opportunities, including astronaut endorsements and equipment naming rights.

The Mir space station was a popular choice for early space ads: it starred in a 1997 commercial for Israeli milk brand Tnuva, which was partly hand-filmed by a cosmonaut on the station itself, and became officially the world’s first ad filmed in space. Pepsi had attempted something similar the previous year when they floated an oversized drinks can outside Mir, but the title and accompanying Guinness World Record went to Tnuva.

Image of Tesla Roadster and Starman dummy astronaut in space, looking down on the Earth

Elon Musk pulled off one of the most audacious feats of space advertising when he put one of his Tesla Roadsters on board a SpaceX rocket (Image credit: SpaceX)

Since then, there have been countless other space advertising projects, including Red Bull’s famous space jump ad with Felix Baumgartner and of course Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster launching off into the unknown. But while all the attempts so far have been related to space in some way – some more tangentially than others – we’ve yet to see what most people imagine when we talk about ads in space: whacking great logos on planets, or worse, an astronomical version of pop-ups.

That could be about to change soon though, if Russian startup StartRocket has anything to say about it. The company is planning its own 'space billboards', which will let companies place glowing logos and slogans in the night sky using glowing low-orbit satellites.

The company has released a rather dystopian video showing what it has in mind, with a KFC ad drifting across the Grand Canyon, and what appears to be an upside-down McDonald's logo floating beside the Eiffel Tower, though we're not sure what the US Government and Council of Paris would have to say about that.

No one knows who’ll win the great ad-space race, but it’s not hard to imagine where the brands of the world could go next. A Samsung launch in an actual Galaxy? Haemorrhoid cream billboards on Uranus? It’s only a matter of time… and space.


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