Close Encounters With Ads

A COUPLE sits on the porch of their lakeside cabin watching the sun go down in a blaze of colors. The wooded setting is tranquil and secluded, presumably safe from man-made intrusion.

As they view the dazzling sight, cosmic letters form across the heavens: "This sunset is brought to you by the makers of ..."

It was one of those ludicrous New Yorker magazine cartoons that stick with you for no obvious reason - I saw this one decades ago. Its premise was grotesque, of course: that advertising's inexorable intrusions would eventually include nature itself. But I still wondered if one day reality was going to catch up with it.

Last month it did. A company in Georgia said it wants to put a giant billboard in orbit around the earth in 1996. Even the company's name makes you shiver: Space Marketing Inc. Their heavenly placard would be a mile long and stay in place for about three weeks, appearing about the size of a full moon to us earthlings.

The magazine Advertising Age has called the project "The biggest advertising opportunity in history." One Space Marketing official described the billboard as a "global" marketer whose advertising message would need to be recognizable worldwide - like Coke, McDonald's, Kodak, or Nike.

There has been a flood of protests, of course. Scientists and academics decry the Orwellian prospect of using space this way. One group has even asked the United Nations to do something about the ominous plan.

But it doesn't take a space-age abomination like this one to make some advertising objectionable. The main problem with the monstrous vision of an orbiting billboard is not so much the nature of the space it's occupying as its inescapability. The trouble is, you can't turn off the sky. The question behind the issue is whether any area should be off-limits to advertising these days. The answer: Sure - advertising doesn't belong anywhere that you can't physically avoid it with reasonable ease.

Years ago in certain cities, local authorities floated the idea of running audio commercials in buses. You'd step in, pay your fare, sit down, and hear blaring pitches for consumer products - the justification being that it would help the city budget.

But the reaction was just as indignant as the current one to orbiting ads. As temporary captives, bus-riders knew - just as surely as today's incensed scientists do - that their space should remain inviolable.

In between outer space and bus interiors lies trickier territory. How about highway billboards along scenic routes? And how about public TV - that's supposed to be off- limits, isn't it? Those "expanded" credits for companies underwriting public-TV programs are worrying lots of viewers, who detect territorial ambitions.

Even home videos have come to represent a haven from advertising. To you and me they may be a way of seeing movies on the tube without commercials. To at least one ad agency, according to a memo, they are an "advertising opportunity" - as if, like nature abhorring a vacuum, the agency just couldn't abide the absence of commercials during all those uninterrupted hours of entertainment.

Some of the most creative work in TV and print are found in ads, and sometimes they're more interesting than the rest of the material. But there are some places they don't belong.

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