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Blimp Baron Hopes Advertising Idea Will Fly

June 09, 1988|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Bobbing over the field, Joe Parr's 60-foot inflatable dream strained at its tethers like some ridiculous airborne whale.

Suddenly a breeze came up, causing its nylon skin to ripple electrically. Then the ground crew let go of the ropes and the thing lurched upward, lumbering slowly aloft to the drone of twin propellers.

"The first time we did this," Parr said, "we caused a massive traffic jam along the Long Beach Freeway. Cars were backed up for a mile or more" as drivers gawked at the nearby spectacle.

Evidence, he says, that he is on the right track. For Parr, 39, thinks he's found a better advertising vehicle. It's called a blimp.

And if things work out, his blimps will someday dot America's skies, bearing the logos and catch phrases of consumerism--at least of those willing to spend the $95,000 a month he plans to charge for an average full-time contract.

"Everybody loves a blimp," Parr said. "Seeing a blimp is like seeing an old friend. People notice it and remember seeing it."

Which, for advertising purposes, he claims, is better than television.

Parr, a professional helicopter pilot who learned his craft in the Vietnam War, first became fascinated with blimps in 1982, when he noticed an ad for one in an aviation magazine. He first reaction was: "Wow! Nobody is using blimps for advertising except Goodyear, and they only advertise Goodyear."

Why not form a company, he thought, that would make blimps more accessible to the larger advertising public?

It took him a few years, of course, to put United States Skyships together and locate a blimp within his budget. In the meantime, Los Angeles-area commuters--already long familiar with the Goodyear blimp--saw a handful of other lighter-than-air advertising craft appear, operated by two companies based on the East Coast.

The vehicle Parr finally added to the field two months ago differs from its predecessors in several respects. First, it's about a third their size. And where traditional blimps carry several passengers in an enclosed cabin, this one holds only two in an open gondola that dangles beneath a body containing 19,000 cubic feet of helium.

In fact, Parr says, the vehicle and its 70-foot inflatable hangar, for which he paid $200,000, is one of only two in the world. The other is in England.

"It's like going back to the old days of flying," he said. "It's about as close to barnstorming as you can get; you're right out there in the open."

And because of its small size, Parr says, this blimp is more maneuverable and less expensive to operate than its larger counterparts.

But its size doesn't hamper its effectiveness as an advertising tool, he insists. By flying it over the freeways during rush hours and hitting the beaches on weekends, Parr estimates that his clients will be able to reach as many as 1.8 million potential customers a day.

And while couch potatoes tend to tune out familiar television ads, and freeway billboards have a way of fading into the landscape, he says, most people watching a blimp keep it in view for at least 30 seconds, remember what they've seen and look forward to seeing it again.

"It's the best kind of advertising there is," said Parr, who hopes to someday operate a fleet of 50 small blimps around the country.

Some experts, however, are skeptical.

Jim Spero, media director of Bozell, Jacobs, Kenyon & Eckhardt, a major New York-based advertising firm, says that while a blimp might work nicely to promote special events, it would have limited effectiveness with other products. "When you're talking about $95,000 for a few words, it's a lot of dough," Spero said. A freeway billboard, he said, costs about $3,400 a month.

Nancy Shalek, owner of the Shalek Agency in Los Angeles, says blimp advertising works only for products that easily lend themselves to the frivolous medium she considers blimps to be. "You can get your name across, but it's getting it across in a medium that's not very credible," she said. "You could likewise . . . be in every toilet stall in America. There's just something flaky about the medium--it's a big balloon."

And Bob Urhausen, a public relations spokesman for Goodyear, says that while his company has had good experiences with blimp advertising since 1925 and does not consider Parr a threat, he is concerned about the safety of the smaller lighter-than-air craft. Specifically, he questions the wisdom of flying over the freeways at rush hour and the stability of smaller blimps in less-than-optimum weather.

"There's room in the sky for everyone," Urhausen said. "The only problem is that they're treading on thin ice as far as safety."

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