Two weeks ago, a plane flew over State College, Pennsylvania carrying a banner reading “Take down the statue or we will.”
Less than a week later, the statue, a likeness of the late former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, came down.
James Miller, president of Genoa-based Air America Aerial Ads LLC, would like to believe it was taken down because of the banner. In reality, it was the president of Penn State University that made the decision to remove the statue.
Miller is not about to release the name of his client, but the banner caught the attention of national media. It is not the first time.
When professional golfer Tiger Woods was embattled over a sex scandal, an unnamed client hired Air America to carry a banner taunting Woods during the 2010 Masters golf tournament.
In both cases, Miller said his business increased after generating national publicity.
“I obviously have some people with very strong views on both sides of the fence, but believe it or not, I probably sold 12 percent more to clients in the last few days than I would,” Miller said. “It spikes. If they already know me they are calling me. If they don’t already know me, it might spike an interest in an event. Right now, I can’t even catch up with orders for next week.”
In Miller’s quotes to national media, such as ESPN.com, he stated that his clients were entitled to free speech. He is not going to back down from his client’s Constitutional right, even though the Federal Aviation Administration grounded his plane after the Masters flight.
“It is freedom of speech, and we’ve always been a form of advertising — a way to get the message out,” Miller said.
“We are really an affordable, economical proven way to get whatever message, whether it’s an advertisement to sell a car, to sell a car part, to sell a movie, a political campaign, or just a straight-up message. Why wouldn’t an aerial advertising company take the same advertisements or the same kind of messages as a billboard alongside a freeway? Nowadays, with the networking, text messaging, YouTube, radio, television, print advertising — I mean, we fall into the same category,” Miller continued.
“If the client is willing to spend the money and it’s not a foul language, then we are going to run it whether it coincides with my views or it’s a contradiction of my views, it doesn’t matter. My views do not even play a factor in what we fly."
In the Tiger Woods incident, his client had a morale issue that he wanted to address. Miller believes morale issues have become a big part of politics today.
“I think this country is really coming to a fork in the road to where people want to go. Both sides of the fence are fighting for what they believe in. It’s very polarizing and there a lot of issues that run on both sides on a lot of issues.”
“The biggest thing is an individual, whether I think probably 50 percent of the population agreed with it and 50 disagreed with it, is that the guy wanted to make his point,” Miller said. “He was willing to pay to say it.
“He wanted everybody to know his (Woods’) actions were incorrect in his view. Maybe to the other guy they weren’t wrong, but in his views they were. He did it, I think, in a tasteful way. It may offend people and the venue is not the most ideal for somebody to be confronted with that, but that’s the only way he could be confronted and they chose that way to do so.”
Miller does not believe digital media will ever affect the aerial advertising business. He says Air America offers a unique service.
“They really can’t because in what I call today’s media overload — if you flip on a computer advertisement, if you flip on your cell phone and get a text advertisement, if you flip on a TV and get an advertisement, a lot of people throw all that stuff away,” Miller said.
“They go to a Toledo Mud Hens game, they go to an MIS race, they go out to the lake at the boat marinas, and in comes me flying an advertisement that is No. 1, away from all the other media to where we stand out, and secondly, the uniqueness has always really been beneficial to my clients.”
Miller, whose company is located in Lake Township but has a Genoa address and Stony Ridge phone number, has been in this business 28 years.
“I grew up in aviation,” Miller said. “My dad was ex-Air Force mechanic and also experimental aircraft builder so I always was at the airports. At that time, when I was 13, I bumped into a guy that was doing this, worked for him for a short period of time and then started this as a family business and then ventured off on my own.”
Air America has 11 planes based across the country, with five in Northwest Ohio, including Toledo Executive Airport. He also has planes based in Detroit. The company currently has 17 subcontracted pilots.
Miller is originally from Bedford Township, Michigan, but has lived and worked here since 1996. His five boys, who attend Lake Schools, play a role in the business providing most of his ground support.
Clients include automobile dealerships, major auto companies like Ford Motor Company and Chrysler, auto parts companies, national insurance companies and local agents, and some of his biggest clients are Bass Pro Shops, Cabelas, and Harley-Davidson.
“We do them all — you just name them, we’ve probably done them in one form or another,” Miller said. “We do a lot for a lot of companies. I can’t name them all. I’ve done banners for practically every presidential candidate since the 80s.”
He and his pilots have flown over major league baseball and NFL venues throughout the country. Does he pay attention to the game below? You bet.
“It’s very peaceful. The pilots all over the country — we are really a bunch of close friends,” Miller said. “If I fly down to Atlanta, Georgia and I’m showing our signs over a NASCAR race, and a local banner company is there, we all talk as if we are best friends.
“If we’re up there, a lot of times we’re enjoying what we love to do. We’re not making millions up there. We’re fortunate to make an honest living doing something we really enjoy doing. We’re up there enjoying the scenery, doing something we love, in addition to watching the game and providing a service to our clients.
“So, I mean, we’ve got the best of both worlds. When there are a lot of games going — when the Hens are in a home stretch or something like that, we do pay attention to the pitching. Sometimes we turn on an earpiece or something like that so we can listen to the game.”