When the animated sci-fi comedy Futurama debuted 20 years ago, who knew it would start looking like a documentary so quickly?
Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but only just. If you haven’t heard, Futurism.com reported in mid-April that the Russian company StartRocket announced a joint venture with PepsiCo to turn the sky into ad space. StartRocket’s idea is to launch CubeSats, small, boxy satellites, into orbit around Earth. The CubeSats would be outfitted with Mylar sails (Mylar being a name brand for the material biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate or BoPET). The sails would reflect sunlight in the late evening or early morning, essentially creating a massive, floating billboard in the sky. Ugh.
Thankfully, the social media backlash that followed led Pepsi to back away from the project, then not, then again. Never minding PepsiCo’s noncommittal committal to creating more space junk, StartRocket’s idea will probably be taken up by some other company down the road if there’s a chance it will pay off.
Advertising is part and parcel of living in a world where people have specialized skills, and it’s been with us since ancient times. A papyrus advertising a fabric merchant’s wares was discovered in the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes. In the “Classic of Poetry,” the oldest existing collection of ancient Chinese poetry, a scene is recorded wherein bamboo flutes were used to goad passersby into spending their shell money on candy. StartRocket’s idea for an advertising medium offends so deeply because of the special place the night sky holds in my heart.
One of my fondest childhood memories is traveling down Highway 27 south of Rome at night. My cousin Mandy and I were sitting in the backseat, looking up at the constellation Orion through the rear windshield. She told me the names of several stars, Betelgeuse comes to mind, and before long I had drifted off, lulled by the sound of the road. To this day I cannot resist spending a few moments staring into infinity when outdoors at night.
Advertisers have a ludicrous number of ways to send their messages to us, many of which are benign. Since the advent of post-World War II consumerism, however, companies have attempted more and more not just to sell something, but to get us so involved with a product to the point it becomes part of who we are. Add the internet and social media to the mix, not to mention the nauseating phenomenon of people attempting to become “influencers” by using brand name products in their YouTube and blog posts, and you have brand preference taken to the point that it fills the role that friendship and civic engagement once did. I won’t even touch the familial, political or religious implications.
A philosophy instructor of mine at the University of Georgia called the self the “Who-I-Am.” Each of us has a “Who-I-Am,” formed not just by our tastes, thank God, but by experience and memory, thought and reflection, prayer, pain and suffering, joy, and the million other little bits and moments that coalesce into the ineffable experience of life. Those of us of the theistic stripe name this the soul, and what could be more valuable?
Letting people know about your product is one thing, but when advertisers begin to leverage the human soul to shape “Who-I-Ams” predisposed to certain tastes, that sounds not just alarming, but downright wicked.
To quote Futurama’s Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth, “I don’t want to live on this planet anymore.”