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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Madison Avenue Looks to the Russian Stars

Russian space officials have set their sights on creating a multimillion-dollar marketing business to help keep their struggling space program going and are searching for an advertising agency to help them.

Within the past month, a leading U.S. advertising firm approached the agency with a comprehensive proposal to exploit the advertising potential in the huge Russian space program. The proposal would have put ads on rockets, billboards at launch pads and used the Russian Space Agency logo to endorse products overseas, said Sergei Gorbunov, a space agency spokesman.

The U.S. company predicted revenues of at least $5 million over three years, much of it from ads painted on rockets at $40,000 per square meter, but the Russian agency won't be rushed into a deal, said Gorbunov.

"We want concrete contracts for specific actions," Gorbunov said this week. "They are not offering us that." Space officials now plan to take bids for advertising services next year.

As well as rocket advertising, the agency has shown clear interest in "event advertising" such as Pepsi's floating can ad filmed on Mir in 1996. During two spacewalks outside the station, Russian cosmonauts inflated a two-meter model of a can and unfurled a banner.

A U.S. businessman who worked on the Pepsi ad deal says the Russians are on the right track by developing commercial opportunities in space. "It's a huge market," said Jay Coleman, president of Washington-based Entertainment Marketing and Communications International, which conceived and executed the Pepsi commercial in conjunction with the Atlanta-based company Space Marketing Inc.

"As we approach the next century, for space to really grow and prosper it's going to require participation from the private sector and not just from governments," said Coleman. "Advertising is just one piece of that equation."

"From our perspective we would hope that even NASA ultimately would open its doors to the commercialization of space -- that's where the future is going to lie," he said.

"Income from space advertising ... will improve the financial state of the whole sector," Yury Koptyev, head of the Russian Space Agency, told journalists last month.

But one U.S. expert doubts space marketing will take off on a grand scale.

"Marketing companies are getting pickier about how they spend money on sponsorship," said Kate Fitzgerald, a contributing editor at the American magazine Advertising Age who specializes in sponsorship deals and has followed the Russian advertising efforts.

"It's not enough just to put your name on the side of something, there has to be a really direct connection to the product and how you can demonstrate that product," she said.

"So far, the only major marketers who have acted like they would spend money on this are aerospace manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas because they manufacture the kind of equipment that would be used for any space expedition," Fitzgerald added.

Coleman says the Russians still can get some advertising mileage out of Mir, despite the collision that nearly spelled disaster for the station last summer.

Since its launch in 1986, there have been at least 10 commercial ventures on the station, including an eight-day stint on Mir by a Japanese television journalist in 1990, the Pepsi commercial and, most recently, ads for bananas and milk.

The most recent was the shopping spree from space by cosmonauts who earlier this month used credit cards and the U.S. Internet service Virtual Emporium to buy Christmas presents for their families. Retailers were happy to write off most of the cost as a promotion.

Now that the Russians, NASA and the European Space Agency have pronounced Mir safe again, Coleman says he is looking to restart some space promotions that he says have already been approved by the Russian agency and will surpass even the Pepsi commercial. For now, he won't say what they are.

He concedes that Mir's advertising value depends on the ability of space officials to prove they have solved the station's problems. No one, after all, wants their ad associated with space accidents.

"A lot depends on companies feeling confident that the Mir is back in full operational form," he said.

The station's problems didn't bother Tnuva, the Israeli firm that paid for the $450,000 milk commercial set on Mir and shown after the June 25 collision.

"It was actually very good for the image of the company. We got a lot of media coverage, locally and on about 20 networks around the world," said Tnuva marketing manager Ofer Blokh, speaking from Tel Aviv. Sales rose by 15 percent after the ad aired in July, he said.

Receiving instructions from Israeli directors at Russia's mission control center near Moscow, cosmonaut Vasily Tsibliyev was filmed gleefully catching a floating blob of milk in his mouth.

"Advertising is now part of our work," said Tsibliyev, now back on Earth. "Who profits from it, I couldn't tell you," he said, declining to say whether he received a bonus for his part in the ad.