Weird Alien Communication: Doritos?

The Doritos Ad

"Sir, we have received this transmission from a planet in the Sol system. For some reason, I'm now hungry."

Remember a few years back when Doritos sponsored a contest for us civilians to create our own Doritos commercials?  Turns out, the winner in the UK got something even better than having their work broadcast on T.V.  Back in 2008, the contest winner’s 30-second homemade Doritos commercial was BEAMED INTO FREAKING SPACE.  It was transmitted as a radio-frequency signal to a relatively close star system in the Ursa Major constellation from radar dishes on the island of Svalbard (which coincidentally we’ve written about before) from a facility called EISCAT.  We sent the commercial to the solar system 47 UMa, just 42 light years away, meaning that if the aliens are peppy about it, they could send a reply quick enough for the commercial’s 25-year old creator, Matt Bowron, to possibly see it before he dies.

Nitpickers will now point out that we’ve been transmitting every commercial to aliens since T.V. was invented, and in fact every broadcast that occurred 47 years ago is washing over 47 UMa right now.  This is thanks to the fact that TV transmission antennas broadcast up into space just as easily as they broadcast across our great land.  But the Doritos message is different — the power is much greater (meaning it’ll stand out against the background noise much better than our passive TV signal leakage), and it’s being aimed at one specific spot rather than going everywhere nonspecifically, and it’s now available in Cool Ranch flavor.

We sent an MPEG-format message to aliens? Yeah, that oughta be easy for them to reverse-engineer…

Oh, except they didn’t bother to package it in an easy-to-understand format.  Nah — instead, they sent it as an MPEG file.  Yeah, should be easy for an alien civilization to work out the MPEG specifications to unwind the message.  Just about every other intentional message has been carefully crafted to be as self-evident as possible.  As we’ve learned, people have devised entirely new languages devoid of humanly assumptions that should be easily decodable by aliens.  Needless to say, MPEG-format video files are not self-evidently decodable.  So no need to feel embarrassed about a freaking junk food commercial representing our planet — whoever receives it has no hope of unscrambling it anyway.

Encoding issues aside, why the hell did a reputable astronomical observatory agree to do this charade in the first place?  Well, funding, of course!  Doritos donated an undisclosed sum to the research university in return for this awesome marketing stunt.  Before you get your panties in a bunch (and why are you wearing panties, Roger?), consider that funding for scientific research (particularly astronomy) is waning.  Hell, back in college I changed my focus from astronomy in part because of how awful the job market is.  This particular contest cost them a couple measly hours of telescope time (if that), and might’ve saved a few folks’ jobs to continue doing real astronomy.  It keeps an astronomy department solvent for another year, it gets people talking about science, there ain’t no chance of the aliens decoding it successfully anyway.  I’m not gonna hate on it.

Nevertheless, what if this is the very first successfully-received message from Earth?  Excited beings on the alien planet, decoding the message, and seeing… a Doritos ad?  “Huh… do they expect me to, like, buy some Doritos?  From 47 light years away?  I don’t even have a mouth!  What am I supposed to do with this?  I need to make some more space coffee…”

Behold the winner, and put yourself in the shoes of the hard-working alien who received the message, reverse-engineered MPEG encoding (somehow), and is watching its first glimpse of life on another planet.

You know what?  It could be much worse, much much worse…


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