Red Bull, Marketing and the Future

Like millions of others, I followed the Red Bull Stratos Jump story last week. I didn’t actually watch it live as I was online with Cat Rambo taking one of her fabulous classes. I definitely logged some time on their site pursuing this story. First, I’m going to say, Wow! Awesome. That was truly a death defying jump and it was thrilling and beautiful to see him safe on the ground after spinning around like a rag doll up there in the stratosphere.

A jump from orbit, Star Trek Style
Baumgartner’s jump feels like the stuff of science fiction and in many ways it is. Red Bull definitely has a knack for spectacle and an ear for story. I would have liked it better if they hadn’t tried to coat the whole adventure with a veneer of science that is so thin as to be nonexistent.

Stop by Bad Astronomy and check out Phil Plait’s great post where he clarifies some of the science claims around the Red Bull Stratos jump and also refutes the meme that an energy drink now has a better space program than our nation. Amy Shira Teitel over on The Crux has some excellent thoughts about the hoopla around Baumgartner’s jump along with some background about Joseph Kittinger’s high altitude jumps in 1959 and 1960.
 “The Air Force needed a way to stabilize a pilot from a high altitude ejection, and Francis F. Beaupre had a sequential parachute that would do just that. Kittinger jumped from 102,800 feet in 1960 as part of Project Excelsior to prove that Beaupre’s parachute would work. It did, the Air Force had data and a healthy Kittinger as evidence, and the project ended. There was no live video of his jump. He was a Captain in the Air Force, and he jumped from 102,800 feet for Captain’s pay to complete a mission.”  ~Amy Shira Teitel

Even though the Air Force and NASA aren’t going anywhere, the jump, with it’s pretenses to scientific and engineering advances reinforces the idea (delightful to some unnerving to others) that space exploration will now simply be handed over to corporations. Of course it’s a little more nuanced than that. Several corporations are already collaborating with NASA to take the next steps into space, and I think that’s a great thing. They’re just not Red Bull. Red Bull isn’t interested in space or even in high altitude ejection safety. Red Bull is interested in selling little cans of energy drink.

Of course science fiction has been imagining corporatist futures since, well, the beginnings of science fiction. The man v. society-as-megacorporation has been meat and potatoes for the genre for many years from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books, to Dune, to one of my personal favorites Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Just about everybody’s written something with an evil corporation: Gibson, Niven, Dick…James Cameron has made a career of it.
But it’s not that Red Bull is a multi-billion dollar corporation that caught my eye. Their Stratos project did break new ground of course, and that ground was in marketing. Yahoo quoted @JMRooker’s tweet: “Red Bull wins the internet for today.” And it did. Within hours a Legos reenactment was posted, memes and Gifs proliferated like genetically modified crops. Janean Chun over at the Huffington Post says Red Bull Stratos May Change the Future of Marketing. Why buy commercial time when you can sell your product by making news.

“How do you cut through the clutter and do something unique? See your brand as a story. Go big, take risks. Your brand could be on the front page of global media if you do something unusual.” ~Ben Sturner

How we consume media is changing by the minute and how products are advertised must change or their companies will relegated to the dust bin of Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It’s a sea change, and what’s fascinating and a more than a little unnerving is this idea of big marketing stunts where the humans involved are simply a cog in the marketing machine. Sometimes the line between product and marketing gets a little fuzzy where the spectacle serves as a feedback loop for generating the income to undertake a big project. Like Mars One
Astronaut, colonist,  marketing tool or all of the above?
According to their website they will:

… take humanity to Mars in 2023, to establish the foundation of a permanent settlement from which we will prosper, learn, and grow. 

They will achieve this partly by making the whole endeavor a reality show. According to Wikipedia the show will involve astronaut selection by the public (audience) American Idol style and continue to follow the colonists’ first years living on mars. Brilliant marketing plan or grim corporatist future? How much reality to you want in your fiction? 

Of course if it’s going to play on the internet there will have to be cats.

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