Last frontier for billboards, the heavens, poses a hellish threat

Arthur Caplan

July 08, 1993|By Arthur Caplan

IMAGINE yourself a teen-ager in love. You and the object of your affection are out on a date. You decide to follow up a movie with a stroll around the local lover's lane. You hope that the combination of the stars and moon will have the effect you cannot seem to achieve via your own inept efforts at conversation.

You leave the car hand-in-hand. The crescent moon is riding high. Two pairs of eyes sweep the sky only to fix upon a phalanx of large, fluorescent green letters proclaiming, "DESENEX STOPS JOCK ITCH."

The impact of the celestial billboard is immediate. The magic of the moment evaporates. Cupid has been so repulsed that you both agree to return home to spend the rest of the evening listening to your grandfather's views about the merits of using a means test to determine eligibility for Social Security benefits.

I suppose it is possible to concoct a more frightening scenario than the prospect of billboards in space. But if it is, I am not up to the task. Is there a more frightening prospect than a midnight sky garnished with glowing proclamations of the favorite slogans of Madison Avenue?

Look dear -- over there, a shooting star, right between "Tastes Great" and "Uh-huh, The Right One Baby!"

Son, remember, if you ever get lost while camping you can always tell which way is true north by the light of the Pillsbury dough boy.

Lest you think my little saga of a night-time sky shimmering with celestial ads reflects an overworked imagination, think again.

Unless Congress and other government agencies act quickly to rein in the private sector as it begins to think about the zillions to be made through the commercialization of space, you could be left staring night after night at a humongous holographic display of a bald man having phony hairlike stuff sprayed onto his shiny scalp.

The plan to litter space with billboards appears to have hatched in the fetid mind of Mike Lawson, chief executive office of a Georgia-based company called Space Marketing Inc.

According to a recent article in Science magazine, Space Marketing announced that for $30 million it was willing to arrange to have sent into space a plastic sheet of reflective material that would offer companies a chance to display their logo at full-moon size every dawn and dusk for all eternity.

Mr. Lawson described the plan as "a tremendous opportunity for a global-oriented company to have its logo and message seen by billions of people . . ."

So far, Mr. Lawson's company has not launched anything. But there is no reason to think that future crews of the space shuttle might not include the Green Giant or Donald Duck.

Earlier this year, Congress came mighty close to cutting off all funds for the development of NASA's much-touted space station. If in the future the money is yanked, how long do you think it will take the crowd at NASA to realize that they may be able to pay for their pet project by gracing the hull of the station with a little luminescent paint and some strategically placed ads for curing bunions, diarrhea or indigestion? In an era of tightening budgets, the space shuttle may soon resemble an Indy 500 race car brimming with corporate logos.

Lots of companies now sponsor sporting events. Many have affixed their names to stadiums such as Minneapolis' Target Center, Salt Lake City's Delta Center and Syracuse's Carrier Dome.

There are some multinational corporations big enough to foot the bill necessary to buy their own piece of plastic, decorate it with shiny inducements to buy their products, rent room on a satellite and blast the thing into an orbit sufficiently high so that you would have to live at the North Pole or Mongolia to avoid seeing the thing.

Some scientists are less than thrilled at the prospect of a heaven advising all the residents on earth of the desirability of reaching out to touch someone. The American Astronomical Society has expressed grave concern about the impact space billboards would have on the study of space by astronomers who would have to try to peer around the things.

But it is not only astronomers who would suffer from the visual pollution of space. Allowing permanent ads in the sky would be bad for all of us.

Advertising in space would constitute the worst possible form of environmental pollution.

Our species has not done what it should to prevent the pollution of the earth's oceans, forests, air and groundwater.

The price of unregulated exploitation of the earth has been enormous in terms of human morbidity and mortality, not to mention the cost to other species of plants and animals.

The time to take on the issue of the visual pollution of space is now.

If we don't, songs like "Moon over Miami" are going to take on an entirely new meaning when the first thing you see after night falls is a floating billboard for "Preparation H."

PTC Arthur Caplan is director of the Center for Biomedical Ethics at the University of Minnesota.

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