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Mad Men in space: the ads that sold NASA's golden age

What marketing from the past can teach missions of the future

Of all the alternative and privately funded spaceflight experiments to crop up in recent years, Mars One has arguably been among the most visible. Which is, of course, exactly what Bas Lansdorp wanted. After all, the Dutch entrepreneur modeled his endeavor, a mission to send regular folks to Mars, after the reality TV show Big Brother, going so far as to meet with the series' producer for guidance. “We’re talking about creating a major media spectacle,” Lansdorp told the New York Times near the project’s launch a little over a year ago. “Much bigger than the moon landing or the Olympics.”

But despite Mars One’s unconventional business plan — which involves funding the colonization effort through crowdfunding, corporate sponsorship, and what it hopes will be massive ad revenues — Lansdorp’s group isn’t exactly rewriting the playbook. Spats with NASA notwithstanding, the Mars One website still borrows the agency’s most famous slogan: “The next giant leap,” it reads, “starts right here on Earth.”

Which comes as no surprise to David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek. The two marketing professionals — who have been collecting moon memorabilia for two decades — recently compiled over 200 advertisements, TV stills, and photographs from their private collections to illustrate the massive effort required to garner public support for the Apollo program.


A screenshot from Mars One's website.

In their recent book, Marketing the Moon (MIT Press, 2014), Scott and Jurek trace the Apollo-era collaboration between private industy and NASA’s internal public affairs office. They contend that the massive campaigns launched then were some of the first deployments of what we’d call brand journalism and "real-time marketing" today. In fact, what Mars One is doing, with reality TV, brand partnerships, and an upcoming book called Mars One: The Human Factor, says Scott, is largely "the same as Apollo — but updated for today."

Pete Conrad poses for Revo sunglasses in 1988.

Lansdorp would be lucky to recreate that success: in July of 1969, 94 percent of American televisions were tuned to the Apollo 11’s moon landing. And such widespread enthusiasm for the event was the culmination of a decade-long campaign to educate the public. At NASA’s inception in 1958, the agency hired public affairs staff "not as pitchmen, but as reporters," according to the authors, a move largely at odds with the rise of a glamorous, oily advertising industry like the one portrayed in Mad Men.

NASA’s PR staff were broadcast- and print-media veterans, and they served up copy like a newsroom. The team grilled engineers for stories, churned out bylined articles, and sent press releases meant to be copied verbatim by news outlets. They produced pre-packaged broadcast segments that often made it straight to the airwaves. In the early days the office largely strove to introduce and explain complex technologies, tech that had previously been used mostly by soldiers and military men, to both the press and the public.

It was a task that, for over a decade, private companies involved in spaceflight were eager to augment. As a government agency coordinating with the military and Congress, NASA ultimately dealt in the release of information and facts. But private companies who earned NASA contracts often employed more glamorous tactics, including colorful press kits and advertisements for the watches astronauts wore, the Tang they slurped from packets, the cameras they used, and the companies like IBM that helped build their spaceships.

NASA did, however, enforce some restrictions. The agency’s photos were taxpayer-funded, so private companies could use them in advertisements without paying to license them — as long as NASA’s public affairs office approved how they were used. But NASA found itself blindsided by what would become its most in-demand asset: the astronauts themselves.

In an effort to maintain control over the astronauts' public profiles, the agency signed a deal with Life magazine, essentially granting the publication exclusive rights to the astronauts’ lives. Until the contract ended in 1962, the magazine ran cover stories featuring the astronauts and their families ("Making of a Brave Man," "Astronauts’ Wives") and spun off a handful of books as well, including a collection of first-person space tales. As Scott and Jurek write, "The astronauts and NASA worked with Life … to carefully craft the image of the astronauts, not as military men, but as middle-class average family men thrust into service for the good of their country."

Which sounds a little like a scaled-down version of Mars One’s most striking feature. Since the campaign’s inception, the reality TV hook has been central to Lansdorp’s plan to raise the billions he’ll need to colonize Mars; he’s fond of citing the Olympics, in particular, for raking in $1 billion of revenue per week in advertising. But his project has also drawn significant criticism, perhaps most brutally on Reddit, for employing such a raft of PR people and graphic designers. As one writer pointed out early in Mars One’s Kickstarter project, the nonprofit is essentially just a marketing company — "and a good one at that."

As Jurek tells it, NASA, as a civilian government agency, packaged and communicated the space program’s activities in their most easily digestible forms. The agency’s goal wasn’t to invent or manage the need for a product, the way most commercial projects do. Lansdorp’s venture has done a fantastic job at that management, largely by tapping into the more wistful emotions associated with NASA’s golden age. Screencaps of the moonwalk appear in many of Mars One’s YouTube videos, and the website compares the Mars One candidates with "the Vikings and famed explorers of Old World Europe." Which isn’t to mention the kind of real-time brand-building that would have been incomprehensible to anyone glued to the TV as Apollo 11 landed on the moon (#space #cake, anyone?)

"Mars one is a marketing company — and a very good one, at that."

But now, it looks like Mars One is trying to ape aspects of NASA’s dual-pronged strategy. Next spring, the company is publishing a book titled Mars One: The Human Factor, edited by its chief medical officer, Norbert Kraft, an expert on the psychological effects of long-term spaceflight. "There are many tough, philosophical, and scientific questions that need to be answered about our upcoming selection of the four heroic individuals that will lead us on our mission to Mars," says Kraft in the book’s press release. "We’re pleased to be able to provide a real-time look at many of these issues."

It’s a far cry from the acetate diagrams given to journalists in the 1960s, designed to help them understand the complicated machinery NASA used to send American heroes to space. But it is a sign that Mars One is attempting to communicate something more concrete than the general sense of wonder it’s employed so far.

Browsing through the material collected by Scott and Jurek, it’s clear that NASA selling spaceflight to a less technically literate public involved making cold, military technology more human and required selling space exploration as an American pursuit not just feasible, but glamorous.

So far, Mars One has used tactics on the other side of the spectrum, going for the human interest stories first, focusing on the flight's applicant pool and capturing the public's imagination using artist renderings of its proposed colony. Now it has the challenge of proving it's not just a marketing agency armed with an inflated sense of wonder, but a company with practical goals. Projects like its upcoming publication could read as an attempt to mimic NASA's internal press room. But after pumping out jaunty catch phrases ("Let’s go to Mars!") for more than a year, it would take quite the marketing campaign to make Mars One look more like a spaceflight company than a TV production house.

Gallery: Marketing Mars


The authors of Marketing the Moon cite Disney’s Tomorrowland as a diversion that helped families imagine the possibility of spaceflight.

All images courtesy of Richard Jurek and David Meerman Scott.