'Voyager 1, I presume?'

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For all of history, humans could only look up at the night’s sky and imagine what the planets of our solar system looked like.

Even with the world’s most powerful optical telescopes, Jupiter and Saturn looked like faint smudges.

It felt like all we would ever know of our celestial neighbourhood until NASA proposed a ‘Grand Tour’ of the outer planets of our solar system. This vision became the Voyager programme.

The best scientists in the world were assembled to create two state-of-the-art robotic probes to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. They didn’t how they would achieve this, but they applied their collective ingenuity and nurtured both into existence.

The probes had the most advanced on-board computers. The most powerful communications uplinks. The sharpest cameras. A nuclear reactor to power its systems. This would be science’s greatest triumph, reflecting the genius of our species as they hurtle through space. They would be our eyes, letting us see further than we ever had before.

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Then America’s most famous scientist, Carl Sagan, had an idea.

Instead of attaching a simple plaque, as they had to Pioneer 10, they would attach to Voyager a message in a bottle.

Frank Drake, working with Sagan, suggested they could fit more information on a record, which would have to be cut in gold to withstand the hostile environment of outer space.

Sagan’s team curated an LP representing the best of our species – on one side, music from around the world from Beethoven to Azerbaijani folk and greetings from people in 55 different languages, on the other, encoded photographs depicting our planet, peoples and species. Etched on its cover was an image of man, woman and a pulsar map locating the probe’s origin.

In the captivating documentary, The Farthest, Frank Drake reflected,

“The people who actually did the science part of Voyager are always jealous and mad because the golden record gets more attention than all the wonderful things they did exploring the outer planets of the solar system … Because the aura that surrounds anything to do with extra-terrestrial life, any effort to contact extra-terrestrial life, is more fascinating than knowing the chemical make-up of a mineral on Mars.”

Drake’s comment sounded a lot like debates in advertising and media today.

Too often, we get wrapped up in the white glow of the latest technology, medium or platform.

We get carried away with data and granular targeting. Or we get excited about a new way to generate some PR or a high-tech stunt to grab some attention. We believe connecting with people in compelling ways means being the first or the best to use the newest format or gadget, or using an existing format in a novel way. But it rarely endures.

The reality is people need a reason to care about brands.

  • A Havas global survey found people wouldn’t care if 75% of brands disappeared overnight because most are meaningless.
  • The Ehrenberg-Bass Institute found only 16% of ads are noticed and attributed to the right brand.
  • Binet & Field calculated that rational campaigns are half as likely to be as profitable as emotional campaigns over the long-term.
  • Original creativity that generates brand ‘fame’ is the most effective form of advertising because they are more emotionally stimulating and influence our culture.
  • A growing focus on short-term campaigns, which rely more on the use of technology and PR to grab attention, is undermining the long-term effectiveness of advertising.

It’s not that we shouldn’t experiment with the potential of new technologies and media to connect with people – this, too, is part of being human – but communications will never be distinctive nor memorable if not built on a compelling insight and an original creative idea that is emotional and meaningful, whether that is a new message or a valuable brand experience or service.

Media are a means to communicate, connect and explore. Media can shape how we receive messages and they can affect the experience of receiving them, as does Voyager’s golden disc.

In truth, we rarely remember how a message reaches us. But we remember how it made us feel.

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On August 25th 2012, we became an interstellar species.

On this day, 3 billion miles away, Voyager 1 left our solar system and continued its trajectory towards the far side of the Oort cloud, which it will reach in 40,000 years – halfway to our nearest star.

Thanks to the golden record, we don’t think about the technology hurtling through space, we think about Voyager as an extension of ourselves carrying our message in a bottle in the hope that, one day, it’s found.

In eight years, Voyager’s plutonium reactor will run out of fuel. Its systems will slowly shut down. We will lose contact with it. Voyager and its golden disc will continue its odyssey as our silent emissary.

Voyager is just a piece of hardware, yet the message it carries transforms it into something else. It’s part of each of us. It connects us with something enigmatic, profound, even sublime. It has made us see ourselves differently.

It reveals a powerful truth about ourselves, our insatiable curiosity and imagination, and moves us, emotionally and behaviourally.

This is what great advertising does.

 
 
Thomas Geoghegan