Marketing to the Mothership

Man, machine, and marketing the mothership. The alternative: marketing to the mothership? Univ. Washington astronomer, Woody Sullivan, described what may be going on:. "Sometimes when you eavesdrop, you get a better idea of what is really going on, say at a party. So when another civilization is eavesdropping on us, they may actually get a better idea about what is going on with Earth. There is more to Earth, as a planet, than what we could send on the gold record that travelled on the Voyager spacecraft. We, as a planet, are not just about listening to Chuck Berry." Image Credit:ESA

Within the first month on Mars, the rovers had captured Madison Avenue with fresh possibilities. Earthlings had some new inspiration about what to do with robots and wheels on another planet. Not just motivation, but drive.

But the advertisers had some tough choices. Driving on the red planet wasn’t going to be just for kids. In the public psyche, were the rovers going to become a kind of next generation car–the new Hummer, a less than sleek truck that in the hands of Madison Avenue had been transformed from a heavy Army vehicle into a symbol for sleek living?

Or were the rovers going to become like modern Magellans, the role models behind the lone climber who in Marine recruiting ads, can scale cliff faces? NASA had complicated all these Madison Avenue calculations by choosing somewhat nautical brand names–Spirit and Opportunity–neither of which exactly fit as a flashy logo on a keychain. The campaign needed to be quick-to-the-punch, clear and concise. So soon after the rovers landed, the first Mars ads took on the startling theme of an alien carjacking. In the ad, the rovers were outfoxed by mischievous martians who tipped their wheels, while mission control was taking a soft drink break.

The winning image was a carjacking. Admittedly, marketing the project had possibilities– and perhaps more importantly, personality.

Personality may be exactly what makes anything alien seem more familiar, like Mom and apple pie. In 1997, when the Sojourner rover first took on Mars, the tiny car was the intrepid challenger, a lone, slightly lonely, example of overcoming all the odds. As Academy Award winning film-maker, James Cameron, told Astrobiology Magazine, marketing the mothership may have something to do with selling it against the odds: "The Sojourner Rover became a character to millions of people, a protagonist in a story. How long is it going to survive, could it perform its mission? "

But Cameron went on to consider that marketing to the mothership is a different campaign altogether, an alien venture: "I think if we found intelligent communication, if the SETI Project said, ‘Yeah, we definitely got an answer,’ I think people would react differently to that. I think there’d be fear, there’d be excitement. "

The question of how we might interact with another civilization has historical and cultural examples to represent virtually every side of the equation, both noble and humiliating. But few have considered how our civilization might interact with another one in the grand, universal marketplace. Astrobiology Magazine asked an expert–Douglas Ryan, an executive at the prestigious Chicago advertising firm, Young and Rubicam, about this broad question: How to market to the mothership?

Doug Ryan
Douglas Ryan, an ad executive at the prestigious Chicago firm, Young & Rubicam, has co-produced two independent films, released theatrically in the U.S., one of which won the Best Long Feature Film at the South by Southwest Festival. Prior to that, he was Vice-President for UNext, an online education company that developed courses in partnership with Stanford University, The University of Chicago, Columbia University, Carnegie Mellon University, and the London School of Economics and Political Science. Ryan received a B.S. in engineering from Princeton University and M.B.A. from the University of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business.

Astrobiology Magazine (AM): There is a line in the Carl Sagan movie Contact, where Jodie Foster’s character, Dr. Ellie Arroway, tells her colleague to raise money in Hollywood, because movies have been making so much money from aliens, it is time for the movie industry to give back. Is the entertainment interest in aliens a fad or a product of new film-making technology only? Anything deeper to it than cultural opportunism?

Douglas Ryan (DR): From the Native American manitou legends up through little green men, our culture has always been fascinated by the idea of unearthly life. As long as this fascination continues, Hollywood will continue to use it to get us into movie theaters. In our more primal existence, we cannot help but dwell on the issue of sex. In our more philosophical existence, we cannot help but dwell on the question of whether we are alone in the universe. So I would venture that the likelihood of Hollywood forgoing alien encounters as future material as roughly equivalent to the likelihood of those same filmmakers forgoing sex.

AM: There was much discussion about putting ads on the shuttle and now the private SpaceShipOne. Would the space program become plastered like NASCAR racing teams? Would it matter?

DR: While the standard history textbooks often try to enshrine our human explorations in something more vaguely noble, the truth is that most exploration can be explained in terms of a search for commercial advantage. Some might say military advantage was a greater driver, but those two were so closely linked in the development of our civilization that it is hard to separate them. Trade is what drove the early seaman to find routes around the world. Spain did not underwrite Columbus for the purpose of pure scientific advancement. If we were to speak honestly, the U.S. space program was driven less by the sentiments quoted in Kennedy’s famous speech announcing the mission to go to the moon, than it was on our desire to avoid having the USSR claim extraterrestrial territories for their own. In that spirit, allowing marketing ventures to be associated with the space program would be consistent with almost every large scale exploration ever undertaken.

If the spice industry could underwrite Vasco da Gama, why can’t eBay underwrite SpaceShipOne?

AM: From an advertiser point of view, are there calculations made routinely about sponsoring risky enterprises? For instance, a customer doesn’t want its name associated with some kind of Titanic event?

DR: Risk analysis is always part of the equation in evaluating marketing sponsorships. In essence, it is no different than buying TV advertising. Some advertisers have pulled out of ABC’s hit "Desperate Housewives" for fear of offending their consumers with its dark humor. But the bigger problem for securing marketing alliances could be on a less dramatic analysis of the positive impact. How many people and what kind of people will advertisers reach with the space program? From that perspective, it’s not clear the space program would be considered a particularly attractive property.

AM: One of the reasons cited in the Presidential Space Exploration Initiative ("Moon to Mars and Beyond") for going into space was resource exploitation, mainly asteroid or lunar mining. Some would say that resource exploitation (in the form of the East India Company) was a central part of British colonization to all parts of the globe, so the Sun never sat on their influence. Is it a failure of space marketing not to have identified an exploitable resource four decades after its beginning?

DR: As ventures into space became more routine, there has been increased questioning of why the program exists. Unfortunately, this issue came to light after the latest shuttle tragedy. It is not clear just what we have gotten from the space program. The "Tang and Velcro" argument seems like small compensation for the lives and billions of dollars spent in service of the space program. It is reasonable to argue that in our modern economy, intellectual property is an equally if not more viable resource than lunar minerals. But even that argument is difficult to establish. In fact, Dr. Austen Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago has done an analysis that suggests the space program is a net drain on the productivity of U.S. engineering resources. So the question of how we tangibly benefit from the space program is likely to be asked more forcefully in the future, and the "because it’s there" response is less likely to garner widespread public support.

James Cameron
Artist and film-maker, James Cameron told Astrobiology Magazine: "If ( aliens ) don’t land on the White House lawn and get out with a death ray, I think the average person is not going to be deeply shocked psychologically. Our expectations have been so elevated from science fiction movies."
Credit: Lightstorm/Cameron

AM: For imaginative purposes, suppose an alien civilization contacts us and they have some rough equality, but different technologies–something like a familiar trading partner. Is this the optimal way to enter a contact scenario–where both parties might see immediate benefits, and neither is in an overlord position to the other?

DR: Absolutely. Consult your economics textbook for David Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage. Also, the fact that we have trouble managing overlord positions in our little world would suggest the logistical challenges of doing so from another part of the universe would be formidable.

AM: To speculate for a moment, so what’s the technology that we have that might be most valuable? In science fiction terms (or conspiracy circles), they seem to want to breed with us.

DR: Biology is not my strong suit, but I would hazard a guess that interbreeding with an extraterrestrial life form would be many times more difficult than having a pig interbreed with a fern. So what would we have? I don’t really know, but I expect it would relate to skills related to our adaptation to our specific environment, e.g. food, chemical or drug production. We are not likely to have more advanced technologies per se, but we are likely to have different technologies based on who and where we are.

AM: So does that mean crop circles are just another Nike swoosh?

DR: No, but just think how effective it would be if they were. People have written movies and books about them. People go out of their way to visit them. It is part of the cultural vocabulary. Most consumer marketers would die for a logo as half as effective as that.

Crop Circle
Branding the Earth.

Let me return to an earlier theme. Most human explorations can be tied to the advancement, not of knowledge, but of commerce. If some life form beyond earth were to pick up a communication from us, odds are that it would be an ad. It is arguable that the same situation would apply to an extraterrestrial communication.

AM: If the aliens are contacting us for ad revenue, do you think we are anywhere close to getting their core message?

DR: While we may not be getting their core message, we are certainly falling right into a classic marketing strategy. Many new products look to establish broad levels of awareness and interest prior to communicating specific product or service features. iPod ads said nothing about what iPods did, they just showed dancing silhouettes that made people think they were cool. As marketing hacks like to say, they got the buzz started. It could be that the aliens have successfully pulled off the greatest buzz campaign ever created. I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

Related Web Pages

Long, Strange Trips
The Cogs of Precognition
PBS: Is Science Fiction Science? Michael Crichton, David Brin, Octavia Butler
Search for Life in the Universe: Part I
A Perfect World I: Tyson
A Perfect World II: Richardson
A Perfect World III: Goldin
A Perfect World IV: Venter
A Perfect World V: Hendricks
A Perfect World VI: Fuller