It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s skywriting! While the latest tech gadgets fit for Superman have been on display in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), skywriting or sky banners have made cameo appearances over the New York area recently. During skywriting’s heyday, it was an advertising medium, but now it also serves to display political, sports and cultural messages.
We’ll elaborate more on the pros and cons of using skywriting to get messages out, but first, a look at a few samples. In case you were outside but looking down to check your mobile devices or were busy working indoors, the following high five were reported by broadcast, online and print media. The widespread publicity generated lent skywriting more of a stunt-like air.
Most of us are used to skywriting soaring over outdoor venues to sell local products such as bars, nightclubs, restaurants or services. In mid-2013 an extended dispute between CBS and Time Warner Cable resulted in a temporary network blackout. Skywriting appeared over Long Island beaches to promote Queen Latifah’s CBS TV show for those who’d been left ‘in the dark’.
More recently, skywriting has turned towards messaging. One notable instance was the “Fire John Idzik” sky banner that flew over the stadium where the (now former) General Manager’s New York Jets practice. Football fans unhappy with the team’s losing season sponsored the banner as well as similar Trump-like billboards in northern New Jersey.
Lately the standoff between New York City police officers and Mayor Bill de Blasio has also made its way skyward. Cops have not only turned their backs to the Mayor in person at the local hospital and during funeral services for slain officers, they’ve also taken to the skies to air their opinions. The first skywriting message said “De Blasio, our backs have turned to you”, and the second banner soaring over the Hudson River read “DeBlasio, apologize to the NYPD!”
Last summer, the “Pi in the Sky” installation, a skywriting project, spelled out the first 314 digits of the mathematical equation in large characters over New York City. The organizer was the founder of the San Francisco-based collective Illuminate the Arts, and the point was to make the mysterious Pi numbers more real. Per the New York Post, 5 computer-synchronized planes flying at 10,000 feet were needed to project the lengthy and complex code.
On New Year’s Day last year, often-controversial actor Shia LaBeouf paid for a skywriting message to appear over Los Angeles, stating “I am sorry Daniel Clowes“. According to Variety, LaBeouf was showing remorse over plagiarizing content from the graphic novelist. Yet while the message flew over L.A’s entertainment hub, Clowes lives in the San Francisco bay area.
A Highwire Balancing Act
It’s open season for skywriting now that it’s experiencing a revival as a way to make bold statements. We’ve outlined a few of the merits and limitations below so PRs can weigh whether it’s worthwhile for their brands or organizations.
- Reaches a broad audience of viewers in the vicinity.
- Messages cover a wide range of categories.
- Sparks viewers’ curiosity as messages unfold.
- Often reported by news media since it still occurs relatively infrequently.
- Images are also posted on social media platforms, increasing awareness.
- Weather-dependent, so it’s best to consult the Farmer’s Almanac in advance.
- Less environmental, since it produces noise, puffy smoke, and leaves carbon footprint.
- Potentially risky given the high incidence of small plane crashes.
- Relatively expensive for messages that are fleeting.
- Difficult to precisely measure impact, unlike digital media.
Skywriting is showing signs of resurgence, but if it becomes too frequent, each case will generate less awareness and publicity. Then its popularity may fade away as quickly as Uber and MasterCard‘s on-demand skywritten love letters over 4 U.S. cities on Valentine’s Day last year or the more recent “God Bless America” message over New York City shown above.