This story is over 5 years old.


The Bizarre, High-Flying World of ‘Dronevertising’

The Don Drapers of today are turning to drones to hawk soda and car services, even if the regulations are tight and the results are lame.

If you were in Monterrey, Mexico on December 18, 2016, you might have lucked out on a magical sight: the iconic Coke bottle sparkling in the night sky, 100 glittering stars forming its silhouette, 200-plus feet in the air. The bottle morphed from a Christmas tree, into a bow-wrapped gift, into a five pointed star, each point of light powered by an Intel drone as part of Coke's 2016 "Caravana" tour.

In the marketing world, "dronevertising" is a relatively new field, offering brands the chance to aerially promote themselves. But no brand has been as enthusiastic as Coca-Cola. From South America to Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, Coke has used drones for viral marketing campaigns, humanitarian causes, and frosty bottle delivery.


Coke isn't the only brand using drones to create its message—last year Uber used signs hung from DJI Phantoms to heckle people stuck in Mexico City traffic jams, and Pepsi created a Drone Football video in Spain. But Pepsi's video was called "a lame attempt to make its ad go viral," by Gizmodo, and Uber's taunts created more animosity than brand loyalty. If things go unchecked, the whole sky could become an ad--and depending on the marketer, it could be amazing or amazingly awful.

Pepsi's most recent dronevertising attempt saw 300 of Intel's Shooting Star drones back Lady Gaga's Super Bowl appearance, using LED lights to write "Pepsi" in the sky. It looked cool but it was a pre-recorded performance, whereas Coke's Mexican jaunt happened in real time.

Coca-Cola has a history of being innovative in its marketing. Recent campaigns include a virtual reality Santa sleigh ride, product packaging that transforms origami-style into VR goggles, 3D printed figurines of customers (to promote its mini bottles), and personalized Coke bottles.

"It was fireworks, drones, and teenagers, what could go wrong?"

One of Coke's most memorable campaigns was its use of fireworks-equipped drones at 2015's Summer of Love Music festival in Israel. The fireworks were activated by opening Coke bottles equipped with red star-shaped transmitters. You'd crack a cap, and BOOM! sparkles would light the sky. They called this the "Wish in a Bottle" campaign.


The effect was rather spectacular—your own personal fleet of shooting stars. "It was fireworks, drones, and teenagers, what could go wrong?" said Scott Lachut, president of research and strategy at research firm PSFK. He's a fan of Coke's advertising strategy, both for creativity and results. "Not only did they engage with the audience, they used content [the viral video] more broadly to reach a wider audience. They saw a 3-4 social share increase from this," he said.

"There's a 'wow' factor just by using drones," Arthur Holland Michel, Co-Director Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, told Motherboard. "Drones are exciting and they have a certain appeal to a broad public."

But for all their appeal, it's not that straightforward to incorporate them into ads. First, drone light displays need to be set against the night sky, and in the US, where brands must fly under the Federal Aviation Administration's Part 107 restriction, they need to request a Part 107.29 waiver to fly past dusk. So far, 318 waivers have been granted.

Additionally, there's a limited number of companies capable of producing memorable drone shows. Intel is the market leader in drone displays with its Shooting Star drone. In addition to backing Lady Gaga, Intel completed a season at Disney World, Orlando, with a custom holiday display of gigantic Christmas trees, twinkling lights, and birds set to a score of Disney and Christmas music.


Intel also provided its technology for Coke's Caravan show in Mexico this December. "We had 100 drones for Coca-Cola," said Natalie Cheung, General Manager of Drone Light Shows for Intel Corp. "Two years ago this would never have happened, but now we have the opportunity to paint the sky with different and dynamic images— people can stop and see something like an ad in the sky."

Cheung recognizes that not everyone is enthusiastic about the sky becoming a commercial canvas, but said that "[Intel's] projects and light shows showcase different art perspectives. We want to show how beautiful they can be."

Coke also used drones for promoting its version of "social good." In 2014, they collaborated with the Singapore Kindness Movement, a non-profit focused on improving social consciousness. They used drones to deliver crates of Coca-Cola cans (2,734 in total) to migrant workers toiling on a construction site. A thank you note in Polaroid form was wrapped around each can—well wishes from Singaporean residents, letting the migrants know their work was valued. The campaign's tagline was "Happiness from the Skies."

"Given the reputation of drones at that time, we weren't sure if it would be a good fit with an emotive brand like Coke," said Ogilvy & Mather Singapore, the agency that created the ad. "We calmed their nerves—and [they] started to recognize the potential of using drones to bring moments of happiness, however fleeting, to the community they operate in."

Coke is also focused on the fun factor. In 2015, the brand invited Budapest residents to its pop-up store through drone-dropped invites, attached to strings of white balloons with mini Coke cans inside.

Coke's drones straddle the line between future thinking and fun, and suggest that if the sky does become commercialized, it might just be something we're okay about. Taste the Feeling becomes Taste The Ceiling? Watch this space.

Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter .