The Ultimate Product Placement – 355 Kilometers Up | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 24.06.2002
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The Ultimate Product Placement – 355 Kilometers Up

Advertisers are choosing to go where few men or women have gone before—outer space. Now a German firm has signed a contract with Russia’s space agency meaning logos in orbit will soon become much more common.


Soon to be covered with corporate logos?

Imagine the following romantic scene: You’re sitting with your partner under a clear night sky. "Look," you say pointing at the starry sky, "there’s Alpha Centuri, there’s the Dog Star, there’s...a Pizza Hut logo."

It won’t quite come to that, just yet, but there will soon be more advertising rocketing off from planet Earth and conveying its message from the cold blackness of space - from the International Space Station (ISS) to be more precise.

Astrium GmbH, a Bremen-based space company which is building the European part of the International Space Station, has signed a contract with Rosaviakosmos (the Russian Aviation and Space Agency) for the commercial use of the station. The contract will allow Astrium easier and less complicated access to the station. Plans are to develop sponsoring agreements, film TV spots and organize very high-profile product placement, be it logos on the cosmonauts’ clothing to the brand of toothpaste they use.

ISS - Internationaler Raumstation

The first permanent crew of the International Space Station, right to left, U.S. astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Yuri Gidzenko and Sergei Krikalyov show thumbs up as they sit in their space suits in front of Soyuz TM rocket at Baikonur Cosmodrome, Thursday, October 19, 2000. The sign in the background reads Soyuz TM Russia. A U.S. and Russian crew due to be the first men to inhabit the $60 billion International Space Station arrived at the Baikonur cosmodrome on Wednesday to inspect the craft on which they are due to fly. The space agency on Thursday set Oct. 31 as the new launch date for the first crew.

"Cosmonauts have to take a bath and brush their teeth just like we do here on earth," said Frank Hoffmann, one of the team at Astrium in charge promoting the commercial use of the orbiting station, "they use products and we can take advantage of that for advertising."

He said there has been a lot of interest on the part of both big and small countries, especially from high-tech companies or those that want to stress some kind of international aspect of their work. He said he and his team are actively working at more than 15 concrete projects, although he would not divulge any names.

He added that the costs were not as astronomical as advertisers might think.

"Shooting something into orbit is going to add on some extra costs, of course," he said. "But you’d be surprised how down to earth the prices can be. It all depends on the project."

Orbital Cash Register

Erster Weltraumtourist Tito erreicht Ziel 1602

California millionaire Dennis Tito pose with the Soyuz and the international space station's crewmen shortly upon his arrival to the station, in this image from the television, Monday, April 30, 2001. Shown clockwise from bottom left are: U.S. astronaut Susan Helms, Russian cosmonauts Yuri Usachev, Yuri Baturin and Talgat Musabayev, U.S. space tourist Dennis Tito, U.S. astronaut Jim Voss. Tito is paying as much as dlrs 20 million for this adventure of a lifetime. (AP Photo/ Russian Space Agency)***IMAGE FROM TV TV OUT

The Russian space agency has been struggling to survive financially ever since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, and hawking products in space is seen as an attractive revenue source. It was the Russians who agreed to take two millionaires, Dennis Tito (photo, center right) and Mark Shuttleworth, up into space for a hefty fee of $20 million each (€20.44 million), providing a badly needed infusion for Russia’s meager space coffers.

Pizza Hut is reported to have paid $1 million to put its new logo on a Russian Proton rocket. The pizza maker then extended the space marketing tie-in with the flight of a salami-topped pizza to the ISS crew. Pizza party in space, thanks to Pizza Hut. An advertiser’s dream.

The tradition of flying commercial products to space is nothing new. It dates back to the early days of manned space programs. But products were often used to conduct experiments or see how materials acted in a zero-gravity environment, not for purely commercial reasons.

Commercialism Gone Wild

Everyone is not jumping on the ads-in-space bandwagon. Anti-commercialization groups, like the Portland, Oregon-based "Commercial Alert" warn that a publicly-funded endeavor like the US space program is not the place to prop up corporate images. They say that’s better left to the private sector.

"We may soon see taxpayer-financed Burger Kind Space Shuttle missions, or perhaps a Disney Cassini mission to Saturn," wrote Gary Ruskin, president of Commericial Alert, in an open letter to NASA.

NASA has proved more reluctant than the Russians to exploit space for commercial ends. The agency refused to take the two millionaires up, and up to now have not come out with a final policy on advertising in orbit, although it is in the process of formulating one.

Astrium’s Frank Hoffmann said the Russians have been more creative and adopted a more pragmatic outlook than NASA when it comes to ads in space. Space exploration is expensive, and ads bring money. He says worries about putting up giant billboards in space that are visible from earth or turning the drums of the International Space Station into giant Coke cans are overblown. He says there are strict guidelines in place on the kinds of ads and products that can be pushed. Alcohol or tobacco advertising is taboo, anything that would harm the cosmonauts’ mission is also prohibited. But if one wanted to pick up a camera and shoot the other brushing his or her teeth with Brand X, that would be just fine.

"If there is interest and an business opportunity there, one that makes sense, then we don’t have any problem with it," he said. "It’s good for the space industry."

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