Bubbling brooks, whispering winds and talking dogs

Timothy Ferris

June 09, 1993|By Timothy Ferris

ADVERTISING executives are reeling over the sheer ingenuit of the proposal in April by Space Marketing Inc. to orbit mile-wide billboards that would send corporate logos gliding across starry skies from Tokyo to the Tampa Bay.

Advertising Age called it "the most ambitious marketing endeavor ever contemplated."

But competitors of the Roswell, Ga., agency have not been caught napping, and many are thinking big when it comes to exploiting overlooked venues in the natural world.

Among the more innovative proposals:

* Bird-belly billboards. "There are billions of birds in the world," says Nathan Tarr of Birdvertising Corp., "and virtually all of them have dishwater-dull bellies."

Tarr is out to change that by placing ads on what he calls "millions of square feet of non-utilized feather space."

He's starting with a small project involving the release of 300 doves bearing tiny Gucci emblems on their undersides. If that goes well, flocks of migrating geese will soon sport the Eddie Bauer logo.

* Fish flank signs. Researchers at Silurian Systems in Tacoma, Wash., are seeking ways to genetically engineer fish so that corporate emblems will appear just behind the gills.

A company spokesman said, "With a bit of genetic tweaking, your next piece of Dover sole could display a brief, tasteful message such as, "How about a chocolate mousse for dessert." Adfish scheduled for released into the environment include steelhead trout bearing the Bud Lite logo.

* Whispers on the wind. Zepheric Enterprises of Barstow, Calif., is attempting to dispatch audible advertising slogans to urban areas downwind.

Early results indicate that large "articulated" windmills situated in Northbrook, Ill., might whisper ads into the ears of pedestrians from Evanston to the Chicago Loop.

Zepheric's researchers are encouraged by a test conducted in the California desert in which the syllable "Brute" winged its way intact for three miles before being heard by a startled alfalfa farmer. The rest of the phrase -- "by Faberge" -- was lost, however.

"Long words get torn to pieces within a few meters," laments a Zepheric spokesman. "The technical challenges are not trivial."

* Babbling brooks. A former Wall Street bond trader who wishes to remain anonymous was idling away the hours on his 80,000-acre Montana ranch following a plea bargain with federal authorities when he observed that a brook near the ranch house sometimes seemed to utter words.

Inspired by the sound -- which, he said, reminded him of Shakespeare's line about "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks" -- he enlisted a team of engineers to see whether water might be manipulated upstream to produce coherent messages.

"Success came more quickly than anyone had dared hope," he says. Agreements with Clear Pepsi and Rolling Rock beer are rumored.

* Articulate puppies. A presentation at the 1993 San Francisco Dog Show of a genetically engineered golden retriever puppy that speaks the words "I like Alpo!" sparked widespread enthusiasm.

But a cautionary note was sounded soon after, when a genetically altered domestic shorthair cat failed to say a word on behalf of Kitty Litter and instead scratched its handler and disappeared under a couch.

* Cloud Cuckoo Land. Gus Hanks, an Australian bush pilot, sculpts cumulus clouds, then sprays them with a biodegradable glucose solution that holds them together for hours. A recent demonstration for visiting Japanese advertising executives brought applause when Hanks succeeded in crafting a two-mile-wide likeness of Michael Jackson out of a rain cloud over Canberra.

"Skywriting is perceived as artificial; cloud sculpting seems more natural," says Hanks, whose dream project is the night launch of "a bigger, better moon, with a tasteful little MTV logo on it."

* Extraterrestrial Broadcasts. A New York ad man, Robert Ray, has leased a radio telescope to send advertisements to the stars.

"Scientists estimate that there are 10,000 inhabited planets in the Milky Way," he observed. "That adds up to something like 1,000 billion potential customers -- a number that dwarfs every market here on Earth."

Responding to criticism over the content of his first transmission, Mr. Ray says he was only joking when he beamed a short jingle to Proxima Centauri that went:

"We're the Earthlings

"What a treat!

"Come to Earth

"We're good to eat!"

"It was only a test," he told reporters. "I doubt there's anyone living at Proxima Centauri anyway. Our first serious transmission will be something on behalf of all humankind -- an environmental message, maybe."

And after that? Mr. Ray has been negotiating with AT&T, Froot Loops and Koh-I-Norr.

Timothy Ferris, professor of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley, is author of "The Mind's Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context."

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