Pushing the frontiers

Neil Armstrong was a really lucky man. In the midst of the space race between the United States and the erstwhile USSR, hundreds of astronauts were in training for space missions. But it was to his good fortune that he was commander of the Apollo XI, thereby giving him the opportunity to leap off the ladder of the lander and leave his imprint quite literally in the story of man’s progress. His one small step was rightly a huge leap for mankind.

As a race, we tend to remember stuff like that – Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Everest, Piccard and Walsh at the bottom of the ocean in the Trieste and Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier in the Bell X1 come to mind immediately. Another one that was drummed in by one of the most effective marketing campaigns of its time was the leap from the edge of space by Felix Baumgartner.

One can only imagine the challenges of sending up a man to jump from the then record height of 127,852 feet. It seems quite anticlimactic to then hear of the record being broken so soon. Over the past week, Alan Eustace, a Google management team member, rose well above this height to free-fall from 135,908 feet. And he didn’t go up in a protective capsule with prominent branding, all he had was a protective suit that kept him alive.

But how likely are we to remember him in the future? If you see the amount of media coverage you know that his feat will be but just a passing blip on pages of sub-space travel. Fearless Felix and his RedBull sponsored record will remain on the books as the defining moment when man leapt off from a really high board.

And if you don’t believe me ask yourself who was the astronaut on duty in the orbiting command module of Apollo XI? Poor Michael Collins didn’t stand a chance – with his story being one of “so near, yet so far”.

But why have I spent so long on this topic?

It’s because I have come to the conclusion that almost all future records and achievements will be governed by how well they are marketed. Admittedly, many of these records are themselves the result of costlier enterprises – like being the first man on Mars. Unless a government, or indeed multiple governments are funding this, how exactly is anyone ever going to cover the tab? Yes, the bogey of sponsorship is there to stay. One can well imagine a future where a Starship Enterprise is cloaked entirely in Pepsi branding and a future Captain Kirk needs to yell out “divert all power from the rear billboards to the deflector shields” And you know the Klingons because of the large KFC on their warbirds.

The subtle and not so subtle marketing aspects of modern business are hitting us on a daily basis. From the umpteen brand managers who are upset with yours’ truly because “your story doesn’t match our marketing message”, to the new breed of content peddlers who send in proposals for free content (also with offers to pay us) that is tailored for our platform, with relevant links included, there is no story too small and no limits too low to which marketers won’t reduce themselves.

In today’s marketing driven world a venture like the Apollo XI would be tailored – you would have a politically correct mix of astronauts and you would also have celebrities endorsing the flight. What you don’t get anymore is the sheer thrill of exploration, of being a pioneer, of doing something well just because it has to be done. Sit and calculate eyeballs, return on investment and measure of voice and tell the pioneers, “It’s just not worth doing it.”

Admittedly, having access to the money is important for any endeavour, whether run-of-the-mill or challenging. In the good old days the sponsors were rich gentry who only wanted to do good. Or were outright mercenary – taking a cut of all new lands discovered, treasures looted or goods traded. After all even the Americas wouldn’t have been discovered without sponsorship.

So here’s an idea for the next big record – the first privately funded manned flight to the moon. And an idea for paying back your sponsors – spray paint a giant billboard on the surface of the moon. What bets that RedBull’s already considering the idea?

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