Savvy PR brought NASA lunar program into American homes
Some people collect stamps or coins. David Meerman Scott, a marketing strategist, has a weakness for paraphernalia that has left the earth’s orbit. His Lexington living room is a shrine of sorts to the Apollo moon missions, containing a flight-ready lunar module descent engine thrust chamber, along with less glamorous artifacts that have been in space.
Scott’s biggest space-related passion, however, is far more mundane: press materials that NASA and the many contractors who supported the missions handed out to reporters. He has painstakingly assembled about 60 press kits, ranging from a 40-page book of moon photos from the Hasselblad camera company to a nifty circular wheel calendar that Raytheon crafted to help people estimate where the spacecraft was, depending on how many hours it had been since blast off.
Scott was at an event with another marketing buddy and Apollo aficionado, Richard Jurek, when it dawned on them: although the lunar missions have been written about and recounted from seemingly every angle, the role that public relations professionals played in the success of the missions has thus far remained largely under the radar.
In a new book, “Marketing the Moon: The Selling of the Apollo Lunar Program,” Scott and Jurek tell that story, accompanied by images that are a delightful reminder of just how front-of-mind the Apollo mission was to ordinary people.
The book shows advertising campaigns that would seem far-fetched today. Companies that made products for consumers bent over backwards to show their connections to a grand engineering project. The scientists and engineers were the celebrities. A Stouffer’s ad proclaimed, “Everybody who’s been to the moon is eating Stouffer’s,” while Del Monte offered congratulations to the astronauts, with the tagline, “We’re just glad we could help.” Even Tang, the maker of flavored drinks, got in on the moon action, with an ad that said, “For spacemen and earth families.”
The Apollo mission kicked off with a bold 1961 declaration by President John F. Kennedy that people would walk on the moon by the end of the decade. It marshalled unprecedented amounts of money and partnerships between industry and government. But that story was also sold to the American public through what Scott calls “the greatest marketing case study in history.”
“If you think about it, Apollo was the entire 1960s and into the 1970s, it wasn’t just a two-week Olympic period,” Scott said.
For Scott and Jurek, there were key decisions made by NASA public relations officials and by the companies working in tandem with the government that made the moon program so palatable to the public.
The authors recount the resistance to live broadcasts of the moon missions. Astronauts saw live broadcasts as unnecessary propaganda, while the engineers building the equipment weren’t keen to sacrifice precious space and weight with a camera system. They quote public affairs chief for NASA, Julian Scheer, who got a note from a Mercury astronaut saying, “We’re not performers, we’re flyers.”
Scheer was undeterred:
“They could never see the big picture. But they weren’t landing on the moon without that [TV] camera on board,” Scheer is quoted in the book. “I was going to make sure of that. One thing I kept emphasizing was, ‘We’re not the Soviets. Let’s do this thing the American way.’ ”
That marked a profound shift, Scott said. Before Apollo, he said, rockets went up largely in secret.
“The idea that you’d get a 200-page press kit with intricate details and unedited voice transcriptions of the Apollo astronauts as they’re on their mission, to do with as you like, and you could get live video — that was really new and really different,” Scott said. “And that was a really big aspect of why this was such a successful marketing campaign.”