A Columbia startup is using a helicopter to hover over traffic and events in the Baltimore-Washington area and display a huge digital billboard that scrolls messages.
Bootcamp Lights put ads for the Scores Baltimore club over the tens of thousands gathered for the U2 concert at M&T Bank Stadium in June. The firm also helped the Baltimore police spread the word over Labor Day weekend about the force's hiring campaign.
Now, for $25, the company will let anyone buy 100 characters to display over busy highways at rush hour or places with congregating crowds. That's about a one-minute commercial.
"It's pretty amazing to see it coming from out of nowhere," said Kyle Benham, Bootcamp Lights' co-founder and chief executive. "You don't even see the helicopter in the sky — it's just hovering in one spot."
Up-in-the-air advertising has been around for decades — the Goodyear blimp had a lighted sign as far back as 1930 called the "Neon-O-Gram." But helicopters bearing scrolling, flashing messages appear to be a relatively new twist.
Benham's partner, pilot Robert Schapiro, helped a few out-of-state entrepreneurs apply for Federal Aviation Administration permission for such work about two years ago — and he liked the idea so much that he decided to try it himself.
Bootcamp Lights, which launched in June, is the only company with a waiver from the FAA's Flight Standards District Office in Baltimore to do what it does.
The FAA can't say how many firms are flying helicopters with digital advertising nationwide, but Helicopter Association International believes the number is small. Helicopters are physically well-suited to carry advertising, but they have higher operating costs than fixed-wing aircraft, the trade group notes.
"This is a pretty unique operation that Bootcamp Lights has going," said Chris Dancy, a spokesman for Helicopter Association International.
Marketing expert Rebecca W. Hamilton was intrigued to hear about the firm's work. Helicopter advertising has the element of surprise that can jar people out of their inclination to ignore anything that tries to persuade them to spend money, she said.
"If we think of the average consumer, they're encountering hundreds and hundreds of messages every day," said Hamilton, a marketing professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business. "More and more, every surface that we're encountering is covered with advertising. If you look up in the sky, it's one of the last untapped areas where consumers still are not being bombarded with messages."
That makes helicopter advertising a savvy marketing move, she said. But the advantage won't last forever if it really catches on.
"There's going to be a drop-off in its effectiveness if it's copied and overused, just like other forms of marketing," Hamilton said.
The State Highway Administration, for its part, hopes such advertising isn't often used over roads. Lora Rakowski, a spokeswoman for the agency, said the state has been working with companies that sell ads on digital roadside billboards — a sort of marketing cousin to helicopter signs — to try to minimize their potential for contributing to crashes.
"SHA discourages any overt activity deliberately intended to distract a driver," Rakowski said. "But ultimately, it is the driver's responsibility to give full time and attention to the task of driving."
Benham, who notes that the state uses electronic highway signs to convey alerts, says the billboard industry's studies suggest digital ads aren't causing traffic accidents.
Those roadside billboards are his primary competition, so his pitch to potential clients is focused on why he thinks helicopters are superior: Advertise when and where you want, no long-term contract required.