All the Money I Could Have Had…

When I was in 8th grade, I took a course called “Mass Media and Communications,” mostly because it was the only elective that would fit into my otherwise rather awkward schedule. As one of the class projects, we had to design an advertising campaign for some fictional product of our own invention. I immediately felt the need to do something clever.

My first thought was to take something useless or commonplace and try to market it as something worth buying (sort of the opposite of the old “dihydrogen monoxide” prank), but then it turned out that this idea wasn’t so clever, and in fact several of my classmates were already planning to try to sell us “air.” Okay, back to the drawing board.

So I shifted tactics to trying to come up with something that would be a legitimately attractive product, but something about “air” stuck in my head. I found myself thinking about air travel and wondering why the experience hadn’t been made more convenient and enjoyable yet. This in turn got me thinking about how annoying and weird it is that you can’t use your cell phones and such things on a plane. Except that I knew it was possible as long as the signals were sufficiently controlled, because I’d seen those oversized “skyphones” on the back of the seats in front of me since I was a little kid.

I’d also just recently learned the concept behind how cellphones work, and so I thought “okay, why don’t we just take some cell towers and point their antennae up at the sky? You could pick a single transmission frequency so that the people who build the planes would know to expect interference around that particular wavelength (I still don’t know what sort of interference cell phone signals are supposed to cause, but it seems to me if the signals are in a narrow enough band, you can easily modify your electronics to filter them out). That way, I reasoned, a company could sell a cell phone that would even work on a plane. And It even occurred to me that you could use the same technology to communicate with a wi-fi network on the ground, thus giving your laptop internet access in-flight. “Tethering,”  they’d call it these days.

It was this latter technology that became the center of my advertising campaign. I knew people wouldn’t want to change cell-phones just for the ability to make a few calls, so I figured I’d “market” my imaginary device that plugged into your wireless card somehow and turned into a cellular wi-fi transponder. I called the device the “go-modem” (we’d been taught that words like “go” reminded people of action and compelled them to buy things) and branded the fictitious company behind it “CellulAir” (Get it? It’s a pun, because we learned that those are effective in advertising as well. Boy was I clever. Give me a break, I was like 13.)

Anyway, in addition to the names, I made a logo, some fake pamphlets, and and then as the final component of the project, a radio spot (everyone else was doing camera work, but I had recently discovered my secret love for radio programming and was eager to try out my dad’s new audio-editing software). My original idea featured me extolling the virtues of the product in a melodramatic voice over the chorus of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” but I soon realized that just because I had recently discovered a love for Simon and Garfunkel didn’t mean it had anything in the world to do with the product in question. So I switched to little narration over background loop of fake airplane noises. I had to record so many takes that I can still remember the text of the spot almost exactly, which went approximately as follows.

In the time it takes to fly from New York to Boston, you can nap, do a crossword, and wonder why little Timmy had to draw that smiley-face right on top of your business report (sfx: depressed sigh*). What you can’t do is check the stock market, look up the answer to 16-down, and ask your wife to mail you a report that’s doodle-free. Until now.

Introducing the Go-Modem, from CellulAir. It’s your key to unlocking the power of wireless interned access even at 37,000 feet. Just plug it in, log on, and you can surf the web while you travel the skies. And remember: with nothing but air below you, there’s no interference. Just a fast and secure internet, at your fingertips (sfx: keyboard clicking. sfx: “You’ve got Mail!”).

For all your business and entertainment needs while travelling, turn to CellulAir, and make your airline …(pause to build up to the cheesy pun)… go online.

It was a fun project, even if the dialogue for the voice-over was pretty predictable. The puns were all cheesy, and in particular I felt bad using that line about “no interference,” because I was pretty sure there would still be substantial problems from clouds and electrical storms and such. But it sounded like the kind of empty non-promise that you would hear in an ad, and all I was going for was something that sounded professional. Actually, at the time I think I was much more excited about recording the sound effects for the background than anything else (I snuck a soda can home from a school lunch so that I could work the “pop can opening” sound into the background; it was awesome.)

I hadn’t thought much about my little marketing scheme ever since, until today. That’s because, as you might have guessed, I’m  blogging this to you from onboard a Delta Airlines MD88, which is halfway between New York and Minneapolis as we speak. I’m taking advantage of Google’s new promotional stunt, in which they’re paying for free in-air wireless for everyone traveling over the holidays.

This made me think back on my old project and so, out of curiosity, I looked up the company providing the wireless service itself. I wasn’t entirely surprised to discover that, as you can see for yourself in the promotional video on their webpage, the system works just like I imagined it: build some new cell towers that cover the sky instead of the ground. That’s no big deal, I’m sure thousands of people had that same, simple thought as me.

But that’s where things get weird. The name of the service that provides the internet access?  “GoGo.” The company behind it? “AirCell.” And if you watch the video, you’ll discover that not only do they say “With nothing but air between these towers and your plane, you’re always getting the best connection,” (which I still think is bogus, I’ve had all kinds of service interruptions!)* But in fact, they steal my “airliner/onliner” pun as well!

So what’s the moral of the story? Do I think I deserve millions of dollars for the “wi-fi in the sky” idea? Of course not. It’s an obvious idea and I bet lots of other people out there had it. To deserve to make money from it, you have to have the FCC contacts and the capital and the business acumen to make it all work. And then of course you have to market it. And therein lies the rub.

Either I should have been able to make a lot of money off of my crappy marketing ideas when I was a kid, or the advertising gurus who are raking in big bucks creating brand names like “AirCell” should be paid a lot lot less. Because next time you see a lousy ad slogan and you think “My 13-year-old kid could do better than that!” you’re probably right. That’s my point.

Oh, also, my other point is that Google is awesome. Thanks, Google, for making this blog-post possible.



*Actually, in this sense they do improve my marketing materials in one specific way. They do an even better job of the liguistic gymnastics to avoid claiming that you get any sort of “uninterrupted” connectivity from being up above all the buildings. They simply say that you’re “always getting the best connection,” which of course could be said about cell service anywhere. It’s just that sometimes even the “best” connection isn’t all that great.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

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