Some people collect stamps or coins. David Meerman Scott, a marketing strategist, has a weakness for paraphernalia that has left Earth’s orbit. His Lexington living room is a shrine of sorts to the Apollo missions of the 1960s, containing a flight-ready lunar module descent engine thrust chamber, along with less glamorous artifacts that have actually been in space—checklists, cue cards, and mechanical pencils that the astronauts used. He even has an exercise machine astronauts used to stay fit.
Scott’s biggest space-related passion, however, is far more mundane: press materials that NASA and the many contractors who supported the missions handed out to reporters. He has painstakingly assembled about 60 press kits from contractors, ranging from a 40-page book of moon photos from the Hasselblad camera company to a nifty circular wheel calendar that Raytheon crafted to help people estimate where the spacecraft was, depending on how many hours it had been since blast off.
Scott was at an event with another marketing buddy and Apollo aficionado, Richard Jurek, when it dawned on them: although the lunar missions have been written about and recounted from seemingly every angle, the role that public relations professionals played in the success of the missions has thus far remained largely under the radar.
In a new book, “Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program,” Scott and Jurek tell that story, accompanied by images that are a delightful reminder of just how front-of-mind the Apollo mission was to ordinary people.
The book collects advertising campaigns that would today seem far-fetched. Companies that make products for consumers bent over backwards to show their connections to a grand engineering project. The scientists and engineers were the celebrities. A Stouffer’s ad proclaimed, “Everybody who’s been to the moon is eating Stouffer’s,” while Del Monte offered congratulations to astronauts Neil, Buzz, and Mike, with the tagline, “We’re just glad we could help.” Even Tang, the maker of flavored drinks, got in on the moon action, with an ad that said, “For spacemen and earth families.”
Apollo, kicked off with a bold 1961 declaration by President John F. Kennedy that people would walk on the moon by the end of the decade, marshalled unprecedented amounts of money and partnerships between industry and government. What’s missing from that account, Scott believes, is exactly how that story was sold to the American public. After all, the American government was spending as much as 4 percent of the national budget on the project, year after year.
“I call it the greatest marketing case study in history,” Scott said, because it was a public relations campaign that infected the public consciousness for a prolonged period. The moon was so cool that for years, even companies without any direct involvement in the program would try to evoke a connection. “If you think about it, Apollo was the entire 1960s and into the 1970s, it wasn’t just a two-week Olympic period.”
For Scott and Jurek, there were key decisions made by NASA public relations officials and by the companies working in tandem with the government that made the moon program so palatable to the public.
The authors recount the resistance to live broadcasts of the moon missions. Astronauts saw live broadcasts as unnecessary propaganda, while the engineers building the equipment weren’t keen to sacrifice precious space and weight with a camera system.
They quote public affairs chief for NASA, Julian Scheer, who got a note from a Mercury astronaut saying, “We’re not performers, we’re flyers.”
Scheer was undeterred:
“They could never see the big picture. But they weren’t landing on the Moon without that [TV] camera on board,” Scheer is quoted in the book. “I was going to make sure of that. One thing I kept emphasizing was, ‘We’re not the Soviets. Let’s do this thing the American way.’ ”
That marked a profound shift, Scott said in an interview. Before Apollo, he said, rockets went up largely in secret.
“The idea that you’d get a 200-page press kit with intricate details and unedited voice transcriptions of the Apollo astronauts as they’re on their mission, to do with as you like, and you could get live video—that was really new and really different,” Scott said. “And that was a really big aspect of why this was such a successful marketing campaign.”
I asked Scott whether he could ever envision a scientific—or marketing—campaign of similar scale, especially at a time when expensive watches are more likely to be advertised on the wrist of an actor than a guy in a spacesuit.
He said he hoped so—and although he personally would love to see us get to Mars, he doesn’t think space is necessarily the frontier most ripe for such a mission.
“The big audacious national goal needs to be commensurate with the times,” Scott said.
He wonders whether the campaign to provide health insurance to every American, for example, would have been more successful if a similar marketing approach had been used.
As a science journalist, it’s a delight to see brands striving to associate themselves with science. Images of astronauts on the covers of magazines and the full-page ads that Sony, Ford, Panasonic, and United all used to associate themselves with the moon are fascinating historical artifacts.
What scientific quests do you think could capture the public imagination like this, again?