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Are we ready for space-based advertising?

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
A waxing Hunter’s moon rises over Washington, Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

During the 1980s, if anyone had told an advertising executive or a computer engineer that by 2022, the NSFNET (today the internet) would become the world’s largest advertising medium, the ad exec and engineer would have laughed in your face. Similarly, only the most visionary ad execs and radio engineers of the 1920s would have imagined that television would emerge as the overwhelming advertising medium of the 20th century. We are now approaching the dawn of space-based advertising and we are no more prepared for it than were 1980s experts for 2020s social network ads, or 1920s experts for 1980s television ads.

As with many other previously bizarre ideas, science fiction writers have been among the few to predict space advertising. In Arthur Clarke’s 1956 short story “Watch This Space” (included in Clarke’s book “Venture to the Moon”), for example, Clarke predicted that someday a famous soft drink company would advertise their logo on the surface of the moon so it was seen by virtually every human every day. 

The dynamics driving us toward space-based advertising today are easy to see: The cost of placing almost any function into outer space has dropped enormously and is continuing to drop. This is the result of the well-documented combination of miniaturizing electronics and of using reusable, low-cost rockets. Satellites previously the size of a car are now often as small as a toaster, and rocket launches that used to cost $100 million can now cost as little as $10 million. Putting any function into outer space today costs a fraction of what it cost as recently as the 1990s, which opens possibilities ranging from thousands of picture-taking satellites to tens of thousands of satellites providing cellphone-like services.

These new services will almost certainly wind-up including space-based advertising.

This will not be the first time that policymakers, business and advertising executives, government propagandists and even scientists have been surprised by the advertising opportunities offered by new sky-based technologies. 

Not many advertising executives or aeronautic pioneers during the 1890s imagined that airplanes could write messages in the sky through what we now call skywriting, but from the 1920s through the 1950s, Pepsi Cola developed skywriting as a significant advertising medium.

Importantly, all sky-based advertising — including blimps and banners pulled by airplanes — is quite local, and thus easily regulated by national aviation authorities, such as the FAA. It normally requires a license of some sort, so sky ads can easily be regulated or shut down. Although the use of drones for sky-based advertising is in its infancy, all indications are that it will remain very local and thus subject to comparable national regulatory controls.

Engineering aside, there are two important economic/marketing differences between space-based advertising and sky-based advertising.

While sky-based ads are typically seen by a few people on the ground in one country, space-based ads will inevitably be viewable by hundreds of millions or billions of people from many countries. And, while virtually all sky-based ads are temporary — usually measured in minutes — space-based ads could easily be viewable for weeks, years or even decades.

Reflecting the powerful economic potential of space-based ads, the issue first got the policy community’s attention three decades ago when a Georgia-based ad agency proposed placing a half-mile wide, mylar billboard in low earth orbit for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. This space-based ad, intended to appear about half the size of a full moon, would have relied on now-outdated, 1980s technologies, but even so, it reportedly quickly got 11 companies to sign up. 

Reaction against a space billboard was swift and emphatic, uniting astronomers, environmentalists and outdoors enthusiasts such as Carl Sagan. The Congressional response was equally emphatic and swift: In 1993, Congress banned the launch of rockets in the U.S. providing space-based advertising, and in 1999 amended it to only outlaw “obtrusive” space-based ads; both laws were followed by implementing FAA regulations.

Only Luxembourg has followed the American approach, so today, space-based advertising is theoretically legal in every other country, and the U.S. regulations affect only rocket launches from the U.S.

Various modest space ads have emerged since the U.S. ban, often using non-American launches: Pepsi floated a can of its soda outside the Russian Mir Space Station; Pizza Hut sent a pizza to the International Space Station; SpaceX sent a Tesla Roadster into orbit on the Falcon Heavy test flight, etc.  

Not surprisingly, a few non-American proposals for space-based ads have surfaced since the U.S. domestic ban, but it’s taken the dramatic increase in the number of space-faring countries and corresponding drop in costs to spark today’s serious interest. In 2019, for example, a Russian business floated a proposal to launch a network of hundreds of tiny satellites that would light up in formation to create an electronic billboard in space and various other advertising and space entrepreneurs have informally floated similar proposals.

By almost all assessments, there is no customary international law or treaties that regulate space-based advertising, so outside of the U.S. and Luxembourg, the field remains open for entrepreneurs. Consequently, when the Russian Skolkovo Institute and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology recently issued a detailed economic/technological business case for a space-based advertising business, it drew a lot of international attention. Their analysis suggested the entire cost of deploying a network of small, illuminating satellites would be around $65 million and would be highly profitable. Their analysis was widely distributed among space and advertising entrepreneurs. Regardless of the business community’s reaction, in the field of international government propaganda, $65 million is a small amount to spend to massively advance a nation’s identity/messages in the night sky; potentially to all seven billion humans.

This leaves us with the dilemma of whether international, space-based advertising should be internationally regulated through cooperation with such space-faring nations as Russia, China, the EU, Iran, Britain, India, Japan, South Korea and North Korea — or whether nations should allow permissionless innovation in space advertising and later react.

The consequences of international inaction could be far-reaching and long-lasting.

Roger Cochetti provides consulting and advisory services in Washington, D.C. He was a senior executive with Communications Satellite Corporation (COMSAT) from 1981 through 1994. He also directed internet public policy for IBM from 1994 through 2000 and later served as Senior Vice-President & Chief Policy Officer for VeriSign and Group Policy Director for CompTIA. He served on the State Department’s Advisory Committee on International Communications and Information Policy during the Bush and Obama administrations, has testified on internet policy issues numerous times and served on advisory committees to the FTC and various UN agencies. He is the author of the Mobile Satellite Communications Handbook.

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