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Skytypers write the world's biggest text messages

In America, almost every inch of space is an open canvas to advertise on - even the blue sky.

"W E L . . . I bet it's welcome," says Eric Platow of Massapequa, guessing as giant white, billowy letters began to appear 10,000 feet above Jones Beach during the Memorial Day weekend air show. "It is. Look."

Platow, a Wall Street businessman between jobs, says he enjoys watching the Geico Skytypers with his wife, Rachel, and sons Matthew, 4, and Jonathan, 14 months. "It's one of the most exciting things and fun to figure out what they're writing. I never miss this show."

Advertisements from well-known brands such as Oreck, Geico, Dunkin' Donuts and the United States Tennis Association have been magically forming and disappearing in the Long Island skies for decades. Chances are you've seen them. Each letter hangs in the air as big as the Empire State Building and is visible for 15 miles, Geico Skytypers says. The company crafts 25- to 30-character messages, 6 to 8 miles long, in the largest text messages ever.

"You can't help but look. In 8 to 10 seconds, the imagination is captured. If done in the right place, right time in situational advertising, skytyping added to a pre-existing media palette can be a memorable way to engage consumers," says Bob Rose, director of account and media services at Seiter & Miller Advertising, which runs media campaigns for Kyocera and the New York University School of Continuing & Professional Studies. "We used a skywriting company for a well-known bar-restaurant to promote their happy hour and it worked well."

Blowing smoke

The six vintage World War II tail-wheel trainer planes fly in perfect unison, 250 feet apart, emitting a dot matrix pattern of heated paraffin. The "air show" smoke is environmentally safe and evaporates quickly like invisible ink. That's the downside.

After all the rain in May and June, advertising is a little lean this season, but Geico Skytypers continues to artistically create on-the-spot ads and messages over beaches, ballfields, stadiums, golf tournaments, etc., as an integral part of many advertising strategies.

Craig Stein, associate director of The Media Kitchen, a division of Kirshenbaum Bond + Partners, has used Geico Skytypers for four years and counting, to promote client Mohegan Sun's "Hot Summer Fun" theme.

"Skytyping is a more experiential message touchpoint and a staple in their summer marketing campaign,'' Stein says. "When you realize the audience reach, it's a fairly inexpensive medium that's becoming a tradition for Mohegan."

The Memorial Day weekend air show at Jones Beach drew close to a half-million spectators, an increase because of the "staycation" economy. The average Skytypers ad costs roughly $1,800 and has the potential to be seen by close to 2 million people. At that price, with a captive audience, some say it's worth it.

Geico is known for out-of-the-box marketing through the Virginia-based Martin agency which created the Gecko branding and Caveman TV spots. Geico now sponsors the fleet of six SNJ-2 planes traversing the sky through 10 to 12 air shows up and down the East Coast, and maybe Texas next year.

"Where else can you get a carload of people to see what we hope is an entertaining show for $8?" asks Steve Kapur, a pilot who does marketing and sales for Geico Skytypers, as well as flying one of the planes.

Vince Giampietro, senior marketing manager of Geico, explains the natural fit as corporate sponsor: "Skytypers is a unique WOW factor for Geico. The air shows provide another vehicle to get our message out there." Giampietro says Geico signed up for 2010 and, "we're talking about 2011 already. The pilots are gracious with their time on the ground as well, often signing autographs and having fun with the crowd."

It's about the memories. "People come up to me and say - I remember that P.C. Richards message from years ago," says Larry Arken, owner and lead pilot of Geico Skytypers. The first Skytyping was sponsored by Pepsi in the 1960s. Remember Coppertone and Solarcaine, Schickhaus meats and Miller Brewing ads?

"I grew up in Flushing, then a sleepy suburb, and remember messages like: 'Party at Channel 80,' " says Richard Notarianni, executive creative director of media for EuroRSCG, a renowned advertising-communications agency with a client roster including Charles Schwab, Jaguar, Exxon Mobil and Nestlé. "It's widescreen, high-definition at its best, offering a wonderful brand reminder like tying a virtual string around the finger."

'A big statement'

Some of the messages have been far out there.

Pilot Tom Daly explains: "Once we were hired to type 'Free Kevin' as a man was about to be sentenced in federal court. After another guy's divorce, we spelled out - 'She Took It All.' "

They like to say, we spell-check, but don't edit.

Then there's the time Yoko Ono hired them on Oct. 9, 1980. Above Manhattan, the Skytypers wrote, "Happy Birthday John and Sean, Love Yoko.'' It was the 40th birthday of her husband, John Lennon, and the fifth of their son, Sean.

"We don't do anything off color or too politically radical," Arken says.

At the end of June they were hired to puff out messages of love over a New Jersey wedding. But it was a secret they couldn't tell in advance.

That's the fun part. "There's a mystery in guessing what the message is," say Peg and Ed Dono of North Babylon, staring up at the sky lined with a "94.3 FM'' arc during the Jones Beach air show. Ed, an assistant principal in Dix Hills' Upper Room Christian School, adds, "It's a unique way to make a big statement."

Some say it's a risk-taker's advertising and may not be effective at all. Others say it's a company's interactive technique to align a brand with what's cool.

"It depends on the goal," says Maurice Evans, a coach in guerrilla-style marketing with abusinesscoach.com who helps clients like Barnes & Noble and Nielsen Media Research create more cost-effective marketing plans. "This is an intrusive way to access that passive mindshare space in a buyer's subconscious, reinforcing a known brand, not necessarily for short-term lead generation or direct-response advertising."

Diamonds in the sky

Unlike the Wicked Witch of the West scrawling "Surrender Dorothy" threats in the sky, Geico Skytypers - based out of Republic Airport in East Farmingdale - is automated, faster and more complex.

Larry Arken, a captain with American Airlines, took over the business from his father, Mort Arken, who died last year at 83. In the early 1950s, Andy Stinis of California developed a paper punch-tape process of writing in the sky. He hired Mort Arken, who brought Skytypers to Long Island.

"Mort would punch out the messages on the ground and feed the tape into the machine by hand," Kapur says. "He'd have a few choice words as the tape would rip." Now, the networked computer system, strapped onto Larry's leg in the lead plane, sends out a letter every 4 seconds. Though last-minute messages are possible, they prefer prearranged. Everything is precisely timed, weather permitting.

The Geico Skytypers air show team includes six planes - four fly in a diamond or main formation, and two are soloists.

The eight pilots are friends and love to fly and razz each other at meetings, saying the diamond formation (four main planes) serves as a backdrop to soloists crisscrossing the sky. The diamond, say the soloists, would look silly all alone without them.

But once up in the air, "it's all seriousness," Arken says. There's a trust between these veterans. "The trust is skill. Many of us have close to 18,000 hours of flying time and I don't ever have to look over my shoulder. I know they are there in the right formation."

In the 1940s, the U.S. Army Air Corps developed 174 BC-1 trainer planes that evolved into the craft the Skytypers use. Before any pilot stepped into the P-51, Corsair or Thunderbolt frontline fighters, they trained on these. Eleven of these North American SNJ-2 planes remain and Geico Skytypers found a way to use six.

"It's intriguing that in this high-tech world of a thousand TV channels, Twitter 24 / 7 and endless Web sites, they are still fascinating to watch," Notarianni says. "It would be a shame to ever see them go. Geico Skytypers are part of summer on Long Island."

The vintage aircraft

SNJ-2 dimensions: wingspan:

42 feet 1/4 inch;

length: 28 feet, 117/8 inches.

Seating: Tandem

Engine: Pratt & Whitney Wasp R-1340-AN-1 550-hp., air-cooled.

Speed: 205 mph at 5,000 feet; climb speed 140 mpg

Crew: Two pilots, flown solo from the front cockpit only.

Nicknames: Pilot Maker; Old Growler, Window Breaker (in England); Mosquito (during the Korean War).

SOURCE: Geico Skytypers

The Skytypers

The team has eight pilots.

They are Ken Johansen, former naval pilot and TWA airline pilot; Steve Salmirs, who flew F-16 fighters with the U. S. Air Force and is a Boeing 777 co-pilot with American Airlines and one of the group's two soloists; Bob Johan-sen (Ken's father), a former U.S. Navy and TWA pilot, with Geico Skytypers since 1977; Larry Arken, who's discussed in the story; Rob Steo, captain with American Airlines and former Air Force jet pilot; and Tom Daly, a former Nassau County Police Department service and rescue pilot, and the second soloist.

Steve Kapur is an air show performer, and Jim Record is a naval aviator who flew the F9F Cougar and A-4 Skyhawk.

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