Drone-powered advertising is here

Unlike aerial advertising that never really took off in India, pun unintended, I think drone-powered advertising could start flying soon


Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Effective 21 December 2015, the US government mandated that anyone using/owning a drone needs to get it registered; and, in the first month, over 300,000 people sent in their registrations. Futurologist Thomas Frey, who was in Mumbai recently for the Zee Leadership Lecture, said that by the year 2030 we will have one billion drones floating above and around us.

The use of drones in warfare is well documented and is par for the course in TV serials like Homeland. Drones are going to be used more and more in areas such as farming (crop dusting), pest control, and of course much has been written about Amazon experimenting with drone-based delivery systems. What next, pizzas?

A recent newspaper report said that the Indian forest department is planning to use drones to track tigers in a sanctuary. And yet another report said that airport authorities are planning to train eagles to attack drones that enter the air space reserved for landing and take-off of aircraft.

Toy drones are sold in your local toy/bookstore, and to me they looked like the real deal.

The first time I heard of drone-enabled advertising was when I was previewing a car ad and the shot looked completely improbable. How did the cinematographer have a crane so tall that it could track the four cars that were driving through a slushy field? The much-amused film’s manager explained the concept of a HeliCam to me. A HeliCam is a drone with a camera that can be controlled from the ground and can shoot moving cars or bikes or whatever, from a high altitude. It was then a novelty and the HeliCam had to be rented from specialist companies in Norway or Sweden.

The HeliCam had a baby brother and I met him 20-plus years ago. He was FlyCam, a camera as small as a fly. Again I was reviewing an ad film where the camera was tracking the fingers moving along the fretboard of an electric guitar. How did the camera go so close to the frets I wondered aloud. The filmmaker, Shyam Ramana, explained he used a FlyCam, a camera as small as a fly that could move wherever he wanted, but with human assistance. And, of course, the use of SteadyCam, a camera mounted on the body of a camera man was also a novelty some years ago and cameramen like Rajeev Menon were specially trained to handle one.

Now all these have become de rigueur in the world of ad films. And feature films too, if I may add. I should admit some of these new toys get tried out in ad films before they cross over to features, at least in India; till some years ago all Indian films were still shot without live sound through noisy cameras.

Coming back to the drone invasion, how will they change the way we live our lives, how we transact business and how we advertise?

The earliest use of airplanes in advertising I remember was the air-dropping of leaflets over cities. We did see some of those during the 1960s, till they were banned due to security reasons, or whatever. Balloons or aerial advertising too is not common in India. (In the US, the Goodyear Blimp is a common feature above all big ball games. These piloted large airships often cause immense amusement to the kids in the stadia.)

Unfortunately we have not seen much of this in India. The closest has been “full plane branding” adopted by brands which have taken the full aircraft as a branding device. Unfortunately much of the branding is invisible to people on the ground. Goodyear Blimp scores over these methods since it is a slow, low-altitude, large flying balloon.

Unlike aerial advertising that never really took off in India, pun unintended, I think drone-powered advertising could start flying soon. This is going to be enabled by several factors. The Indian start-up ecosystem is vibrant and there are bound to be many kids in Powai, Guindy and Koramangala working on algorithms to code a drone to do many things. For instance, a drone-cam is already a common feature at high-end weddings in Mumbai and Delhi. Brand activations that have become common in shopping malls of India could get an additional thrust by a drone-powered selfie! Or a drone could be used to airdrop samples of candies in schools, and kids could be made to sit through a lesson on how a drone flies on its own. Or imagine a car company sponsoring a network of drones to monitor the traffic along the key arteries of Mumbai and Delhi, with live feed through Twitter, Periscope, etc.

When mobiles were new in India, some savvy brand marketers managed to get mobile operators to run SMS-powered contests free of charge (the mobile brands were making money with every SMS being sent by the subscriber). I am sure the very same marketers are figuring out how to use drones to make their brands fly even higher.

And there is bound to be a smart start-up lurking in the corner waiting to fly the first ad-powered drone.

Ambi M.G. Parameswaran is author, brand strategist, advisor of FCB Ulka Advertising and president of Advertising Agencies Association of India. He will take stock of consumers, brands and advertising every month. The views expressed are personal.