When I was a kid and prone to shining flashlights into the night sky just to imagine their beams reaching into the universe into perpetuity, there was a rumor that some big corporate entity was researching the possibility of advertising on the moon. This, of course, came out at about the same time that other urban myths started rolling off the rumor mill—like the one about Bubble Yum being made out of spider eggs or how Life Cereal’s Mikey died from combining Pop Rocks with Coca-Cola.
I’m embarrassed to say that in my advertising-saturated mindscape at the time it didn’t seem like a particularly weird idea. Thirty years later, of course, the thought of projecting advertising onto the moon for commercial purposes seems as absurd as the late-great author David Foster Wallace’s idea of having corporations sponsor years—the Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishwasher, say, or the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment.
I was reminded of this ten years ago when articles started coming out about how a Coca-Cola executive named Steve Koonin had conceived a plan to use NASA laser technology to shoot colored beams into space in order to form the Coke logo on the lunar surface just in time for the Times Square Ball to drop. Shot down by the FAA, who pointed out that the lasers just might cut airplanes in half, Koonin reluctantly shelved the idea.
Last year, however, the beer company Rolling Rock came out with a mock viral campaign that advertised its intention to laser-beam its trademark green horse onto the moon’s surface, which led to a surprising hue and cry from irony-insensitive people asking whether nothing was sacred.
The answer, of course, is no—confirmation of which arrived in my mailbox recently in the form of an ad in The New Yorker for Louis Vuitton. Shot by Annie Leibovitz—who, God knows, needs the money these days—the ad shows a trio of expensively attired people perched atop an artfully rusted-out pickup and gazing longingly at the moon. They turn out to be none other than Buzz Aldrin, Jim Lovell, and Sally Ride—three astronauts who have been closer to the moon than any promotional laser ever has.
Next to Ride’s wondering posture is Vuitton’s outsize “Icare” travel bag, the price tag of which ($1,530) is the rough equivalent of sending two adults to week-long space camp. (Given the name of the bag, it can only be hoped that should the unlikely happen and it gets shot into space with a future generation of astronauts, the logo-emblazoned object won’t end up plummeting to earth like poor melted Icarus.)
All of which is to say: What the freak!
Associating American space travel with French luxury leather goods is the ultimate breakdown of signifier and signified—even if the campaign, which includes an extensive website, is dedicated to celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo moon shot. Vuitton is no stranger to presenting its products as historical Zeligs, though. I remember receiving a similar shock two years ago when I was flipping through the pages of another magazine and came upon an Annie Leibovitz Vuitton ad that showed the former Soviet premiere Mikhail Gorbachev posing in the backseat of a Eastern bloc–reminiscent limousine driving through a dismal area of East Berlin. Beside him was the telltale bag—its brown-and-tan patterning the only color against the drab cityscape in the background. Call it Cold War nostalgia meets crass commercialism. The juxtaposition was so ridiculous that it almost made me think it was a joke—which it most definitely wasn’t.
Celebrity advertising, of course, has been with us for a long time—whether in the form of Judy Garland washing with Lux Toilet Soap in 1941, John Wayne smoking Camels in 1954, Andy Warhol flying Braniff Airlines in 1971, or Tina Fey charging office equipment on American Express in 2008. These person-to-product endorsements feed off celebrity aura in a fairly direct way—something that stands in vast distinction to what LVMH is doing in its ads. Rather than relating its product to celebrity, the company is actually aligning itself with seismic changes in history: The fall of communism in one instance, sending Humans to the moon in the other.
A decade ago, Apple’s Think Different campaign attempted to do a similar thing by using the likenesses of Gandhi, Picasso, MLK and Martha Graham, among others—historical heroes who, one would guess, would have been quick to reject being co-opted by the company had they been alive to field the request. The fact that Gorbachev and Aldrin actually agreed to participate in the campaign is, well, upsetting—even if LVMH maintains that it is donating an undisclosed percentage of profits to Al Gore’s Climate Project on their behalf.
For those who miss the days of lunar-laser fantasies, however, there’s reason to take heart. A company aptly called Moon Publicity is offering buy-in on a new “Shadow Shaping” technology that employs robots that will carve out ridges and valleys on the moon’s surface in order to throw shadows in the form of your favorite logos.
Who knows, if it’s true that the Great Wall of China is visible from space, maybe earthworks-style corporate excavation will be the next wave of the commercial future.