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Space: The final frontier of advertising takes flight

Attracting attention online, a Hyundai Genesis video sees a 13-year-old girl in Houston writing a message to her father in space.

Advertisers love big gestures that get them noticed: slapping brand names on buildings, breaking the bank on star-studded Super Bowl ads – and in Hyundai Motor Co.'s latest effort, that means an ad so big it can be seen from space.

Last week, the auto maker released an online video, claiming it used 11 of its Genesis cars to write a message from a 13-year-old girl in Houston to her father in space. The message read, "Steph [loves] you!" It spanned 5.5 square kilometres on the Delamar dry lake bed in the Nevada desert, and set a Guinness world record for the largest-ever tire track image.

Hyundai is just the latest in a series of marketers in recent years who have seized on our captivation with the final frontier.

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When millions tuned in online and on TV to watch Felix Baumgartner's record-breaking free-fall from 39 kilometres above the Earth, their rapt attention also fell on the prominent Red Bull logos on his helmet and spacesuit.

In addition to the meticulous planning of the team surrounding Mr. Baumgartner, Red Bull Stratos was an intricately planned public relations stunt, as well. The equivalent paid advertising time would have cost the brand millions, and the fascination with the jump was arguably more valuable for the brand's image than an ad could ever be.

In 2013, Unilever SA-owned brand Axe launched the biggest promotion in its history in 2013, with help from none other than astronaut Buzz Aldrin. It held a contest for the chance to go to space camp in Florida, and 22 people were chosen for a ride on one of the Netherlands-based Space Expedition Corp.'s commercial space flights.

Just last week, power equipment manufacturer Andreas Stihl AG released a video reminiscent of the blockbuster film Gravity, in which marooned astronauts used a fire extinguisher to propel themselves through the void. In Stihl's version, its leaf blower does the job.

"We're trying to separate ourselves from the competition. You put yourself in space and you put yourself above everyone else," said Stihl Canada's marketing manager, Jeff Loosemore.

The video was made in France, but has received so much attention that Stihl Canada plans to promote it online as well.

"Space gives you a high-tech appeal … you're insinuating that there's a lot of technical design behind the equipment," he said. "When you're thinking of a blower, and you want to say they're powerful, what better way to say it? With space, there's a lot of messaging that you can do by imagery and nothing else."

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Hyundai's video also took advantage of that power to showcase the vehicles' handling and technological prowess. But it was also a way for the brand to connect with customers on a deeper level.

"Hyundai was always very much a rational purchase decision," Hyundai Canada spokesman Chad Heard said. "Customers see us as good value for the dollar. That's not necessarily a bad place to be. But if you want to grow and evolve, you need to add the emotional side of that purchase equation."

The global campaign, which was produced by the marketing team out of South Korea, was intended to show a caring, human side to the company, said Dan Buckley, vice-president of ad agency and Hyundai subsidiary Innocean Worldwide Canada. Many marketers have found that building that emotional connection – beyond just a focus on products – can be a powerful tool of persuasion when it ultimately comes to purchasing decisions.

The emotional tale has racked up millions of views on YouTube. However, the details are muddy: A Hyundai spokesperson would not specify the astronaut's name. NASA spokeswoman Jennifer Knotts said, "No NASA employee was involved in the commercial." There are no Americans on board the International Space Station who are not affiliated with NASA, she said.

Hyundai's PR team in South Korea did not respond to questions.

The particular allure of space is not new to marketers.

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In the early days of the U.S. space program, brands took full advantage of any association with the quest to land a man on the moon.

For example, Space Food Sticks were advertised as "energy food developed by Pillsbury under a government contract in support of the U.S. Aerospace program." A real link to astronauts who captured the public imagination was quite the marketing tool.

Most famously, Tang was advertised as the powdered drink "chosen for the Gemini astronauts." In one commercial, a mother describes how her fussy eater is now eager for breakfast, "because the astronauts drink Tang in outer space." This advertising was so enduring that during a call with the International Space Station, President Obama asked the astronauts, "Do you guys still drink Tang up there?"

Even cigarettes got in on the action: When the Apollo and Soyuz spacecraft met in orbit in 1975, astronauts weren't the only ones co-operating across a Cold War divide. Cigarette manufacturer Philip Morris and the Soviet Yava cigarette factory entered into a joint venture to produce the commemorative Apollo Soyuz packs.

In the late nineties, Russian cosmonauts floated a replica soda can outside of the Mir space station after PepsiCo Inc. paid $5-million (U.S.) to the Russian space agency. A few years later, Pizza Hut announced that it would pay more than $1-million to place its logo on a Russian Proton rocket bound for the ISS. In 2001, the pizza chain did another promotional deal with the Russians, shelling out roughly $1-million to deliver a pizza to the space station. That same year, Kodak paid for cosmonauts to replace the Russian flag outside the ISS with its advertisement.

By 2001, the United Nations was so concerned about brands encroaching into space that it issued a resolution to "consider the issue of international co-operation in limiting obtrusive space advertising." A background paper on the subject provided to the U.N. by the International Astronomical Union called such advertising a "grave concern for the future."

The prospect of companies launching billboards big enough to be seen on earth in low orbit became a concern for U.S. regulators. By 2005, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration proposed amending its regulations to ban "obtrusive" ads in space, warning that "large advertisements could destroy the darkness of the night sky."

Brands today are looking for an association with the romance and excitement of space.

When Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield brought social media savvy to the ISS in 2013, he helped rekindle some of that excitement. The timing was perfect for Axe's campaign, as well, said Unilever Canada marketing director Jessica Grigoriou.

"We're always trying to stand out in a cluttered marketplace, so we always need to be coming up with breakthrough ideas that create that talk-ability and relevance," she said. "That's something that space definitely achieves."

(Axe's contest winners took flight earlier this year on a suborbital spacecraft called Lynx – after its brand name outside of North America – that travelled 100 kilometres above the earth.)

"Space has always been one of those places that people are awestruck by," Innocean's Mr. Buckley said. "When we put a man on the moon, it was connected globally with culture and everyone who was glued to their TV. There's that ongoing aura of what's out there, and what's possible. That has a real connection."

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