The best and worst ads that celebrated the Apollo 11 Moon landing

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This is the 42nd in an exclusive series of 50 articles, one published each day until July 20, exploring the 50th anniversary of the first-ever Moon landing. You can check out 50 Days to the Moon here every day. 

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On the day after the Moon landing, July 21, 1969, the news coverage in the nation’s newspapers was expansive, almost unlimited. Every single minute of the Moon landing and the Moon walk were described and analyzed.

That day, the New York Times devoted its entire first section to the Moon landing—18 newspaper pages of stories, pictures, graphics, and even a page of poems inspired by the Moon landings and two pages of reactions from prominent people around the world. Such luminaries as Henry Ford, the Dali Lama, Charles Lindbergh, Jesse Jackson, and Pablo Picasso—”It means nothing to me . . . I don’t care”—offered a response.

On the 21st, any advertising about Apollo was modest, perhaps because big companies wanted to see the astronauts land safely back home before unleashing their Moon-related marketing.

The most interesting ad on July 21, 1969 came from Brillo steel-wool scrubbing pads. Brillo offered Times readers a poster-size color map of the Moon, from Rand McNally. The ad was a striking one-third of a page, showing the Moon, with a coupon. It was a typical late sixties promotion: Fill in your address and mail the coupon, with two “proofs of purchase” clipped from a box of Brillo pads to get that map. “This map is only available from Brillo,” the ad forewarned, before brightening: “Let Brillo send you the Moon. Free.”

Brillo, to be clear, had no connection to the Moon landings.

The advertising blossomed on the day after Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong successfully and safely splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. On that day, in fact, the ratio of news coverage to advertising in the New York Times completely reversed.

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The paper itself was 88 pages that Friday, July 25, 1969. It contained 15 full-page ads about Apollo, and another half-dozen ads that were a half-page or bigger. In all, there were more than 22 pages of advertisements about the Moon landings. The coverage itself that day commanded six pages.

The advertisements were a bonanza of joy and opportunism, of cleverness and cliché. They added as much to that day’s newspaper—and to the sensibility of the Moon landings themselves—as ads elevate the Super Bowl experience.

[Screenshot: The New York Times, July 25, 1969]

Class, sass, and crass

The department store Alexander’s used the photo of the Earth rising over the Moon, the dark of space in the background, with nothing but the line, “We came in peace for all mankind”—the line from the commemorative plaque the astronauts left on the Moon.

[Screenshot: The New York Times, July 25, 1969]

Hilton, the hotel company, ran a full-page ad that congratulated the astronauts, then pivoted into a discussion of Hilton’s financial performance so detailed that the advertisement includes three charts—revenue, earnings, and dividends.

Meanwhile, a local New York City store called B&B/Lorry’s pulled off a great advertising line: “Welcome back from the greatest roundtrip in history.”

Reaching, but with spirited effort

There was determination, even if it was obscure. “Today the Moon,” says one ad. “Next week Mars. July 31, to be exact. That’s when Mariner VI, launched last February, will fly by Mars . . .”

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The ad is from Allen Tool Corporation in Syracuse, New York, and it goes on to explain that Mariner VI, an unmanned exploratory probe that had nothing in particular to do with Apollo, was launched on an Atlas-Centaur rocket. Atlas-Centaur used Pratt & Whitney rocket engines, and inside those rocket engines were fuel injectors. Those fuel injectors? Engineered and manufactured by none other than Allen Tool.

[Screenshot: The New York Times, July 25, 1969]

Allen Tool may have had a tenuous connection to Apollo, but consider the state of North Carolina, which took out a nearly full-page ad with a picture of Wilbur and Orville Wright’s first flight. The full text read: “The space race began in North Carolina. It’s a good location for any venture.” In tiny type at the very bottom, it urged business people interested in relocating to North Carolina to write directly to Gov. Robert W. Scott.

[Screenshot: The New York Times, July 25, 1969]

The rah-rah team players

A full-page IBM ad noted that Apollo had required the work of 20,000 companies, including IBM.

[Screenshot: The New York Times, July 25, 1969]

Among those who decided to advertise alongside Big Blue were Hamilton Standard (United Aircraft), which made the life-support backpacks the astronauts wore during the Moon walk. For those willing to read through some paragraphs of advertising text, the Hamilton Standard ad had a nice tidbit of historical trivia: The company also made the propellor for Charles Lindbergh’s plane, the Spirit of St. Louis, that was the first to traverse the Atlantic Ocean solo.

Singer—the sewing machine company—was in those days a technology conglomerate, and it made the computerized flight simulators astronauts used to learn to fly to the Moon. And, the company’s full-page ad confirms, the Apollo spacesuits were sewn using Singer sewing machines as well.

One of the more prideful bits of promotion, albeit warranted, came via a full-page ad from Fiberglas, which made the blazing white exterior fabric for the 21-layer Apollo spacesuits (called beta-cloth). It depicts Armstrong and Aldrin, in those suits, raising the American flag, with the lunar module in the background.

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In the Fiberglas ad, the picture is four times the size it had been on the Times front page. “Fiberglas suits helped make it possible,” the ad reads. “We’re proud to have helped man dress for his greatest adventure.”

[Screenshot: The New York Times, July 25, 1969]

Those who asked, what’s it all about?

There were hints of the culture and controversy just beyond the unavoidable glow of Apollo celebration. Three companies took out advertisements that were, in fact, miniature lectures, each headlined with a question.

“Why do anything?” asked LTV Aerospace, which in 1980 would go on to hire Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins as a company vice president. “Why sail west toward the New World? Why look through a microscope? Why go to the Moon?”

“So what?” asked an ad from GE, a little obliquely.

“Have you maybe heard a neighbor ask, ‘So What?’ about walking on the moon?” the GE ad opens. “Some people think like that. If it costs a lot of money and they don’t see an immediate payoff, it’s a So-What.” The ad goes on to give a list of “Here’s What” replies, arming any Apollo fans with what they’d need if they felt the itch to rebut their neighbor.

The advertisement wasn’t from GE Corporate, but rather GE’s Silicone Products Division, which made the soles of the boots that left Armstrong and Aldrin’s distinctive bootprints on the Moon. It features a picture of the underside of the boot of one of the astronauts, just about to step off the lunar module’s ladder.

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[Screenshot: The New York Times, July 25, 1969]

And RCA, the electronics brand which made tech that helped transmit the TV images from the Moon to 600 million people’s living rooms, took a full-page ad with the headline, “But why?”

“Man dreamed the impossible dream,” the text opens. “And made it happen. But why? Was it all really worth while?”

RCA, to be clear, concluded that it absolutely was.

The talk of the town

The ad that was the talker—and that remains a classic today, like Apple’s Super Bowl ad—managed to combine wit, a perfect appreciation of the Moon landings themselves, and the subtlest sense of product promotion.

All from a company that also had nothing to do with the Moon landings.

Volkswagen, which had been having a good time in the 1960s promoting the VW Beetle as a car that wasn’t particularly sleek but was really practical, took a full-page ad in perhaps the most prime position in the paper: The back page of the Times’s first section.

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In 1959, VW ran a shockingly minimalist ad for the Beetle that read “Think small.”

Now, a decade later, VW and its ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach put a capstone on the creative revolution it engineered.

The ad was a single crisp image, of a model of the lunar module, in all its gawky, four-legged finery.

The tagline: “It’s ugly, but it gets you there.”

Not even the VW logo appeared.

The distinctive typeface, design, and attitude made it clear whose ad it was.

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[Screenshot: The New York Times, July 25, 1969]

One Giant Leap by Charles Fishman

Charles Fishman, who has written for Fast Company since its inception, has spent the past four years researching and writing One Giant Leap, his New York Times best-selling book about how it took 400,000 people, 20,000 companies, and one federal government to get 27 people to the Moon. (You can order it here.)

For each of the next 50 days, we’ll be posting a new story from Fishman—one you’ve likely never heard before—about the first effort to get to the Moon that illuminates both the historical effort and the current ones. New posts will appear here daily as well as be distributed via Fast Company’s social media. (Follow along at #50DaysToTheMoon).

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