NASA launched its latest mission to Mars on Thursday, drawing millions of viewers. And while the features of the Perseverance Rover are mightily impressive, the thing that led so many people to YouTube was the chance to watch an Atlas V-541 rocket do its thing.
As launch vehicles go, the Atlas is the Ferrari of rocket ships. Its kerosene and liquid oxygen-fueled engines deliver 2.3 million pounds of thrust—and, to the delight of those watching, plenty of flames. And if you happen to be the world’s best-known brand of lighters, that’s as good a tie-in as any.
Within hours of the launch, Zippo, the iconic American brand of lighters, quietly put a special edition lighter on sale to commemorate this latest Mars mission. The reddish hue of the gold-plated lighter—a signature flip-top model that shuts with Zippo’s distinctive “click”—evokes Mars’ iron-rich soil and features a wireframe rendering of its rocky surface. Engraved on the back is a rendering of the Perseverance itself.
While there’s no telling how many customers for this special item also have a pack of smokes in their back pockets, it probably doesn’t matter. Zippo realized long ago that lighter collectors are a demographic unto themselves.
“These collectibles are a great way to keep our consumers engaged and excited about our products and the Zippo brand,” said Zippo’s archivist and brand historian Shirley Evers. “They represent something unique and rare, many times tied to a milestone in history, which is really appealing to the collectors.”
As Evers’ observations suggest, this is hardly the first time Zippo has chosen seminal moments in American history—and in the space program, specifically—to issue a special lighter. In 1969, when the crew of Apollo 11 became the first humans to set foot on the moon, Zippo issued a lighter showing the lunar module Eagle sitting on the cratered surface. These days, this model can fetch hundreds of dollars, and Zippo itself has only one of them in its collection.
In 1994, on the 25th anniversary of the Apollo mission, Zippo was back with another commemorative lighter engraved with a likeness of Neil Armstrong descending the ladder. And in 2019, Zippo marked the 50th anniversary of the historic mission with still another collectible lighter. In keeping with the ecologically conscious spirit of the times, this model puts the Earth in an astronaut’s hands.
Zippo has no sponsor relationship with the United States space program, but its commemorative lighters deftly sidestep potential intellectual property issues by omitting specific mentions of NASA or the spacecraft names, instead referring to them simply as Moon or, in the latest case, Mars.
The Zippo brand name has been practically synonymous with lighters since oilman George Blaisdell invented his first windproof model in 1933. And while its Pennsylvania factory still produces some 70,000 lighters a day, the brand has also had to change with the times. While 42% of Americans smoked in the 1960s, today that number has fallen to around 14%. These days, Zippo sells everything from hand warmers to camping lanterns. But whether consumers used them to light up a cig or a barbecue grill, the classic lighter will always be the company’s signature product. And in June, its production passed the 600 million mark.
What has helped Zippo produce such a huge variety of themes is the lighter’s smooth surface, a ready medium for everything from historical motifs (the 75th anniversary of D-Day) to motivational sayings (“Follow your way and never give up”) to the logos of other brands (Harley Davidson, Playboy, Assassin’s Creed.)
“We pride ourselves in the fact that the Zippo lighter is a small canvas,” Evers said. “Not only do we document cultural experiences tied to pop culture and the military, but we also document important milestones in history, like space exploration.”
And, specifically, yesterday’s launch. The rover Perseverance is expected to take about seven months to reach the Earth’s neighboring planet, which is a hair over 60 million miles away. Zippo expects that its commemorative lighters—limited to a run of 1,000—will sell out much sooner than that.