Hunting for uncluttered ad space? Some brands are looking up

Plane-pulled advertising over beaches and outdoor events helps summertime brands stand out.
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Illustration: Francis Scialabba, Photos: Dunkin’, Vacation, Fair Harbor, ABC, Warner Bros., Van Wagner

5 min read

Lounging on the beach this summer? Look up—so are advertisers.

At the Rockaways or Coney Island, you can spot ads for ABC’s The Bachelorette or for the beachwear brand Fair Harbor trailing behind planes. Dunkin’ and Wawa, meanwhile, make sure their ads hover over the Jersey Shore.

It’s no metaverse activation or TikTok trend, but plane-pulled ads, known in the industry as “aerial advertisements,” deliver something brands may find elusive in other formats. Ads in the air are unskippable, un-mutable, and almost impossible for beachgoers to ignore.

“I defy you to sit at a beach or be at a music festival or sit at a concert and have a plane fly overhead and not look up,” said Jeremy Levine, VP of sales for the aerial division of the out-of-home advertising company Van Wagner.

Ready for take off

Van Wagner is one of the largest national aerial advertising networks in the US, with operations in New York, California, Florida, beaches up and down the East Coast, and other major markets.

Alcohol brands, streaming platforms, film studios, delivery apps, startups, sports teams, and local retailers all choose aerial advertising for various purposes, and Levine said advertisers are drawn to the fact that aerial ads have a wide range of applications. Among their selling points: they don’t have to fight for attention when backdropped against the sky.

“You’re not competing with a bunch of other things,” Levine said. “It’s a clutter-free environment.”

an aerial ad for the Bronx Zoo

Bronx Zoo/Van Wagner

Media buyers agree. “It’s such an underrated out-of-home format,” Brian Rappaport, founder and CEO of out-of-home agency Quan Media Group, told Marketing Brew. Aerial advertisements, he said, are extremely cost-effective for brands, both because banners can be reused and because aerial ads around an event like the Super Bowl can be far cheaper (think: less than $20,000) than buying a television ad or billboard around the same event.

In many beach towns, aerial ads may also be one of the few places where brands can reliably reach vacationing consumers who can be hard to reach, explained Martin Porter, evp, OOH lead at dentsu Media US.

“It’s very difficult to reach them with any other type of out-of-home, whether it’s out in the Hamptons or any sort of beach town,” Porter told Marketing Brew.

Easy does it

That doesn’t make aerial advertising easy. The banners themselves are huge. The most popular banner size Van Wagner prints is 40 feet high by 80 feet long, or about the length of one-quarter of a football field. (Jumbo-sized banners stretch 65 feet high and 135 feet long.) Banners can’t wrinkle or fold or they will obstruct messaging, and they must be displayed at a certain angle so messages are legible to beachgoers.

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Of course, there’s the weather to contend with, too, since planes can’t take flight in extremely windy or stormy conditions. That’s one reason why aerial campaigns are most often the “icing on the cake” of a campaign, not a primary media channel, Porter said.

When skies are blue, though, it’s big business—especially in the summer months. Van Wagner, which estimates the entire aerial advertising industry to be worth around $25 million annually, sent more than 300 flights over more than 28,000 miles of beaches across the US during the Fourth of July weekend.

an aerial ad for the Showtime show "I love that for you"

Showtime/Van Wagner

Measuring aerial advertising’s impact, though, is particularly difficult. Van Wagner can count things like parking spaces at beaches and use other market research data to estimate reach and audience, but buyers acknowledge there’s a level of opaqueness in the medium.

“There’s no real way to audit or measure in real-time as you would with traditional out-of-home, unless you do something along the lines of a customized URL code…or a giant QR code,” Rappaport said. “At the end of the day, if you’re doing an aerial banner and you’re a brand, do not count them as being a measurable tactic in out-of-home. Go into it knowing that it’s a low-cost, smart, effective awareness play that you can utilize over and over again to be present at core events.”


Brands that use aerial ads say the format can be an opportunity to build brand awareness “in a contextual environment,” explained Lach Hall, the co-founder of Vacation Sunscreen, which has used aerial advertising during events like Art Basel and Formula One Miami Grand Prix.

“It makes sense for us to be flying overhead on beaches where our sunscreen is readily available at the convenience store near that beach,” Hall said.

More recently, brands have used aerial ads as performance-driven buys, Rappaport said, or to target hyper-specific audiences around certain events.

Aerial ads can also be an affordable way to create content for brands’ social media presences. Vacation Sunscreen’s social accounts have referred to the planes pulling the ads as the company’s “corporate jet,” Hall told Marketing Brew, and the brand is thinking about developing aerial messages designed to encourage onlookers to snap photos and share them on Instagram.

“I’d love to get to a spot where it becomes more of a viral thing that other people on the beach are laughing about,” Hall said.

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