Up in the sky: Not a bird or a plane — a helicopter with ads

You know those banners towed by airplanes over beaches and stadiums? Old hat. Prepare yourself for airborne advertising 2.0.

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.

At a time when advertising is ubiquitous, Bootcamp Lights' owners hope that glowing words and images in the sky will get the attention of jaded consumers — not to mention companies looking to promote themselves.

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.

A coffee shop could buy ads to appear only in the early morning, for instance. And a company could launch a come-on to consumers directly over a competitor's location — something Benham says a car dealership is thinking of doing.

Bootcamp Lights has videographers shooting footage so its clients' campaigns can last beyond the time it takes to display the messages aloft.

The company also has a team of ground spotters in case something goes awry. Benham said he lined up people to do that work after his staff discovered an hour into a flight over Ocean City that the billboard wasn't turned on.

"You learn those kinds of things," he said. "You're launching something that's so new."

It was the appeal of the new that prompted the Baltimore Police Department to contact Bootcamp Lights about advertising its plans to add several hundred new officers. "BALTIMORE POLICE NOW HIRING" scrolled over the crowds in town the Friday before Labor Day for the Baltimore Grand Prix.

Police officials were pleased with the results, and not just because the company offered to do (and did) the job pro bono.

"Everyone saw it and just thought it was the coolest thing," said Detective Jeremy Silbert, a police spokesman who watched the advertising event from the ground. "It was a great way for us to get our message out."

Sean Lewis, general manager of Scores Baltimore, was just as enthusiastic about the ads for his club. "It was awesome," he said.

The digital billboard — 8 feet tall and 36 feet wide — is about four times the size of Bootcamp Lights' Robinson R22 helicopter. Attached with bolts and cables, the billboard hangs between the copter's fuselage and skids. Essentially a wire frame with lights, it weighs about 60 pounds.

The open design, required by the FAA for safety reasons, means messages fade into the sky during the day. The company needs the darkness of early morning and evening — or late afternoon during the winter — to do its work.

The outdoors has other limitations, too. Benham and Schapiro have had to twice postpone the launch of their 100-character campaign because bad weather made it unsafe to take the helicopter up.

They're undeterred. They launched the campaign Thanksgiving evening, flying over tailgaters gathering downtown for the Ravens game. On the billboard flashed messages promoting a documentary, a local attorney, a Baltimore County house for sale, a game designer's Twitter account and several business ventures.

Bootcamp Lights, like many startups, isn't making its founders any money yet. Benham works on a syndicated radio talk show on the weekends and has a side venture with his fiancee selling mini-wallets made of recycled leather. Schapiro — dubbed "Bootcamp" by friends when he joined the Maryland National Guard in 2008 — is a flight instructor and does helicopter tours.

But they're both hopeful about future profits. They believe so strongly in their business' concept that they funded the company themselves.

"The way I see it, every strong business nowadays is started in a bad economy," Schapiro said. "This seemed like a great time to start."