Look Down, Not Up: Ad-bearing Drones Sputter over Downtown

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Drone pilots in search of a launch pad
Drone pilots in search of a launch pad (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

KCRW got tipped off that Art Center College of Design was planning a publicity stunt Thursday involving drones flying around the corporate towers on Bunker Hill. It is part of an ongoing campaign to convince unhappy human “drones,” shackled with “practical” jobs like lawyering or finance, to go back to school and study a creative trade.

The concept was for worker bees to view, through their hermetically-sealed windows, a moving billboard of five drones holding mini-signs that ask, “Why work for a living?” 

The station’s arts and culture reporter Lisa Napoli lives downtown and she got a grounds-eye view of the entire enterprise.

When I left my apartment on Bunker Hill at 6:30am to witness drones flying over the financial district, I had visions of dozens of suited morning commuters, looking up in the sky, marveling at the vision above them.

Instead, I got a crash course in the challenges of deploying this new technology for a publicity stunt.  And, a nice morning walk downtown.

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Five blue t-shirted “pilots” from the ad agency DroneCast assembled on the plaza behind Gensler, Chaya and Drago (if you’re a long-time Angeleno, you know this area by its former name, Arco Plaza.) This was their intended start point and the drones were supposed to fly up and down Flower Street for four hours this AM.

But as they were preparing to launch, the pilots were asked by security to move off.

When Art Center College of Design alerted media about their drone stunt, the news release assured that they were within the letter of the Los Angeles Police Department law in their plans for the stunt, adhering to rules about airspace.

What they didn’t factor in was the iron-clad ships that are downtown Los Angeles office buildings. Whoops! Note to would-be drone operators: Get permission before you fly.

The troop and their camera-wielding entourage marched around a bit before making their way to the Flower Street plaza of the Citibank Tower. Adjacent to the brightly colored Mark di Suvero sculpture, Shosone, above the morning rush hour, out of most people’s sight, the drones alighted.

Ironically, about the only people who could see the buzzing drones didn’t really need the message: Employees of a design firm (Gensler, which, incidentally is doing its own experiments with drones).

Somehow, security managed not to bust the group here before they moved along the downtown pedways on to the park adjacent to the Union Bank building–a lovely, almost secluded green expanse directly across from the Bonaventure Hotel.

The park adjacent to Union Bank
The park adjacent to Union Bank (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

No security to bust them here.  Or many onlookers.  There were more people in the crew taking photographs of the drones, in fact–I among them.

Finally noticing the woman in black with an iPhone who’d been stalking them (that would be me,) a concerned representative of the ad agency behind the campaign approached and asked me what I was doing.

We started to chat:

“This is more about the drill than the hole,” he said, as the entourage snapped ‘proof of concept’ pictures. The security issues and scuttled flight plan didn’t seem to bother this fellow: “If an art school isn’t going to take this risk, who will?”

On its website, DroneCast declares that the ‘future of advertising’ has arrived.

On my way to meet back up with the crew after we all took a break, I ran into a smiling friendly guy on Flower and Sixth standing with a platter full of beautiful cupcakes, offering them to passersby.  He was promoting a new bakery about to open on Wilshire.  I happily took the sample, and put the card in my purse.

Drones may be the future of advertising, I thought to myself, as I licked the icing off my fingers–once they work out the kinks, like permitting and such.  (The slogan on the drones was nearly impossible to read.) But the old-school stuff like freebies–that’s tried and true.  No art school degree necessary!

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