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New Realisms

Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program

by David Meerman Scott and Richard Jurek
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2014
144 pp., illus. 210 col., 25 b/w. Trade, $39.95
ISBN: 978-0-262-02696-3.

Reviewed by Stephen Petersen


The Apollo 17 landing of men on the moon in 1969 was, in the words of Walter Cronkite, “the single great story of the century.” This book steps back from the story itself, to tell the story of the story – how the marketing and public relations efforts behind the Apollo project were, in an important sense, crucial parts of that project, making the very achievement possible. The authors are specialists in marketing as well as Apollo enthusiasts and collectors. Presenting a wealth of promotional material, along with latter day reflections by those involved, they paint a picture of a nearly seamless collaboration between government, private industry, and mass media.

Among the unprecedented aspects of the Apollo moon landing was the scope and avidity of its audience. Viewers primed by Jules Verne, Walt Disney, and illustrated magazine features on the future of space travel were ready to tune in to the space program. Looking at how this audience was cultivated, and the kinds of information it was given and by what means, Marketing the Moon provides an illuminating overview of the Apollo project seen through the lens of public relations. It also offers some profound insights. Foremost is the way that the NASA Public Affairs office, “with a limited budget, made the most of what they had by adopting a ‘brand journalism’ and ‘content marketing’ approach” (p. xi). Information was freely provided to the press, and the press in turn did the work of disseminating that information at no expense. In this way, educating the public became synonymous with promoting the Apollo “brand.” Business partners likewise contributed to educational efforts.

Meanwhile, the makers of items used in the course of the Apollo mission (Hasselblad cameras, Tang) developed ad campaigns based on this unprecedented “product placement.” The astronauts themselves became spokesmen but also celebrities, widely represented in the media. As crucial representatives of the program, their image was carefully managed and their appearances choreographed.

“Communications,” broadly construed, were integral to the Apollo project, not only in the sense of developing systems of remote communication for the astronauts, but in the way the project was communicated to the public. Thus, one of the most crucial features of Apollo was the fact of its being televised – a fact that was more of a hindrance than a help to the astronauts themselves but integral to the sense of the public’s vicarious participation. It was not a foregone conclusion that television cameras would be present in space, and once it was decided upon, new technologies were required. As the authors note, “The achievement of broadcasting live television from the Moon was nearly as astonishing as landing there” (p. xi). As a result, the moon landing became an unprecedented media event, represented in real time. As the book repeatedly shows, the press and broadcast journalists were part of the event.

In a sense, the Apollo program became a victim of its own success. Ultimately, “in the course of less than three years, an achievement that, when first accomplished, was acknowledged as a monumental turning point in human history, was slowly reduced in scope, magnitude, and importance into something commonplace” (p. 76). The impossible became the expected: just another space flight, just another moon walk. If the first had been unprecedented, successive moon walks became, in the words of a 1970 newspaper editorial, “virtual reruns” (p. 101).

In an effort to keep up public enthusiasm, NASA organized a 50-state road show featuring the lunar module and a specimen of moon rock, hugely attended but ultimately retrospective in nature. So closely linked were the fortunes of Apollo and its worth as a “story,” that the diminishing television ratings for successive Apollo missions ultimately led to the premature cancellation of the program. For the authors, the end of the Apollo project and of manned missions beyond earth’s orbit more generally is, quite simply, a “failure of marketing” (p. 123). The brand was not kept alive.

But the book is more than a marketing analysis. It reminds us that if the Apollo landing was “the single great story of the century,” it was also a consummate event of its time, reflecting and also contributing to the American culture of the day. Television was on the ascent, picture magazines were still in force, advertising and corporate interests had reached an unprecedented peak of influence, and technology was entering a new age. But it was also a time of crisis in the economic and political life of the country, when realism was overtaking idealism. Kennedy’s “We choose to go to the moon in this decade” gave way to Nixon’s 1972 remark, in the wake of Apollo 11, that “This may be the last time in this century that men will walk on the moon” (p. 111). The enormous resources that the Apollo program required could not be justified to a public whose priorities had shifted. When widespread public enthusiasm for space travel did eventually reemerge in the late 1970s, the authors note, it was no longer in the context of NASA programs but in the realm of pure entertainment, in the Star Wars movie franchise.

Last Updated 29th August 2014

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