With Beaches Packed for Labor Day, Aerial Ad Players Go Big for Their ‘Super Bowl’

Family-owned shops fly banners for Coors Light, Wawa and an anti-Trump group

Plane-powered banners not only spread the word for big companies but also the whimsical messages of everyday people. - Credit by Paramount Air Service
Headshot of Christopher Heine

While Labor Day was created to celebrate the American worker, the full holiday weekend has long been more about giving summer an unofficial send-off. Beachgoers ritualize the occasion like no other group, especially along the mid-Atlantic and Northeastern Seaboard, where crowds of sandy-footed frolickers get particularly dense in places like Ocean City, Md., the Jersey Shore and Brooklyn’s Coney Island.

In such locales, sunbathers, boogie-board wizards, taffy-gnawing kids and boardwalk bar patrons will have at least one experience in common: hearing the rising hum of a propeller and squinting toward the sky at a small aircraft trailing a banner advertisement that’s almost impossible to ignore.

In an era when digital advertising is fraught with fraud, print readers are declining and linear TV viewership continues to dwindle, this seemingly old-fashioned marketing channel is as relevant now as it was when it became popular in the 1940s. As the NFL season nears, aerial advertising players, many of which are family businesses, are already getting ready for their Big Game.

Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends are the equivalent of “the Super Bowl of aerial advertising,” said Michael Arnold, owner of New York-based Arnold Aerial Advertising. The Fourth of July, he said, comes in third.

“We are flying for 60 different clients per day over Labor Day weekend,” said David Dempsey, president of High Exposure, whose clients include Coors Light, Wawa, Make-A-Wish Foundation, SeatGeek and Borgata Casino.

“Banner blindness,” one of digital advertising’s most persistent problems, does not concern either “flyvertising” sellers or their paying customers. Apparently, not even the South Florida sun hurts the visibility of aerial banners much. In a survey of 2,200 people at Miami Beach, where aerial advertising is often employed, 88 percent of respondents recalled the passing of an aerial ad after 30 minutes, 79 percent remembered exactly what was advertised and 67 percent could recall at least half of the message.

“Aerial banners are in an uncluttered media environment,” said Lauren Hanko, lifestyle media director at agency Harmelin Media, which buys campaigns for Wawa, Comcast and other clients. “We estimate an exposure of 3 million [people] for a full New Jersey Shore flight—Sandy Hook to Cape May—during holiday weekends.”

The size of the aerial advertising industry is unknown because trade organizations like the Outdoor Advertising Association of America don’t break out sales figures specifically for it.

“[We] do not rely on the people to go to or pass by the ads,” said Justin Jaye, owner of Santa Monica, Calif.-based FlySigns Aerial Advertising. “We take the ads to the people.”

Beachgoers, Jaye noted, are usually in the 18- to 34-year-old demographic that brands covet. He said targeting young consumers is central to why his 27-year-old company, which employs 60 people, has increased its sales between 10 percent and 15 percent every year for the past decade and expects to bring in $4 million during 2018.

Aerial ad providers charge anywhere from $200 to $3,500 for one-off campaigns, depending on the mileage of the route. Their pilots typically fly Piper Pawnees, Super Cubs or Cessnas, fueling the single-engine aircraft with what’s called AvGas, or aviation gas. “To cover the entire [Jersey] Shore from Cape May to Sandy Hook, a plane will burn roughly 45 gallons,” Dempsey said.

A gallon of AvGas was around $6.50 per gallon at press time. All told, these numbers suggest a profitable enterprise on the supply side of things.

Many mom-and-pop airborne operations have been around for decades. Paramount Air Service, for example, was founded in 1945 by the late Andre Tomalino, a glider during World War II. His daughter, Barb Tomalino, now helps run the 12-pilot outfit in Rio Grande, N.J.

“[He] had a family summer home in Stone Harbor, N.J.,” she said. “He wanted to keep flying after the war, and he wanted to be in the place he loved—so he started the banner planes.”

Since then, her family has run campaigns not only for brand marketers, but also “many unusual ones—[people] looking for a lost cat, a runaway child, announcing the gender of a baby.”

Even though summer’s coming to a close, flyvertising should remain a steady business this fall for many of the providers, thanks to the midterm elections. The political divide in the U.S. will be on display, and President Trump’s name will likely often twist and turn hundreds of feet in the air. Jaye said that this weekend, one of his aircraft would fly an “Impeach Trump” sign for a Democratic political action committee.

“Election years are great for us,” he said. “Always see a good pop in sales.”

@Chris_Heine Christopher Heine is a New York-based editor and writer.