Has the Branding of Humans by Companies Gone Too Far?

Marketers and advertisers have been getting more and more creative with how they choose to promote their brand and products. A recent trend has been the one of the “walking billboard.” Many people have been willing to brand almost any part of their body for the right price.

In more recent years, tattoos have been seen as both as cultural icons as well as innovative methods to deliver a specific message. Web sites such as LeaseYourBody.com, TatAD.com, BodyBillboardz.com, HumanBanner.com, and LivingAdSpace.com connect brands and potential advertisers with individuals who are willing get “branded” for money.

Many popular brands such as Volvo have used these creative tattoo advertisements to further promote their cars. Linda Gangeri, national advertising manager of Volvo Cars of North America, said their tattoo man was a way to get people to think differently about the Volvo brand.  Being a “walking billboard” is an extreme example of how people are being used to creatively advertise for brands in today’s society.

There are less permanent and drastic ways in which someone can brand themselves for a company. Clothing is a great example. Clothing will always be a great tool for human branding because it is one of the first things we notice about the appearance of others.  In recent years, there have been rumors circulating that Abercrombie and Fitch pays individuals to come into their store and shop whilst wearing their clothes.  Even more recent are the allegations that the company has done the exact opposite as well. In 2011, the company reportedly offered the cast members of MTV’s “Jersey Shore”, specifically Mike “The Situation”, to not wear their clothes while filming the popular TV series. They felt that the cast members wearing their clothes affected their brand negatively rather than positively and did not want to be affiliated with the show. Clothing is also largely used by brands that are not restricted to apparel to benefit both the clothing store, and their own brand. For instance, the clothing store “Hot Topic” sells a variety of different t-shirts from many different companies. One of the big examples is the “Twilight” series. By selling shirts that relate to the book or movies, the people who buy these shirts then become walking billboards for both “Twilight” as well as “Hot Topic”. Clothing has been and remains to be a great tool for human branding for the simple fact that in society, appearance really does seem to be everything. If someone is attractive and is wearing a t-shirt that promotes something, most people that see this person are likely to be influenced by what is being advertised on the shirt.  The “Legalize Gay” shirts from “American Apparel” are a great example. Not only does the shirt promote a cause, but some people even think it’s trendy. This caused the design to become a quick success for “American Apparel”.

Along with self-branding through choice of apparel, companies use celebrities to promote their brand by paying them a great deal of money to wear their clothes, jewelry, hats, sunglasses, etc. In 2003, famous tennis player Serena Williams signed a sponsorship contract with Nike which agreed to pay her over 8 million dollars a year just to wear Nike’s logo on her uniforms and visors while playing. Not only is Serene getting paid; she does not even have to buy her clothes from Nike because they are given to her. The better and more popular the athlete, the more money companies choose to invest into that particular person or team. Tiger Woods is another athlete that has been ridiculous sums of money just to wear and boost certain brands. Before his sex scandal, Tiger allegedly made between 55-60 million dollars from endorsements.  After, the controversy, he makes about 20 million less, but still an incredible amount of money just to wear Nike apparel.  This marketing strategy applies to fashion and luxury brands as well. On the “red carpet”, interviewers are constantly asking who designed celebrities’ dresses or what brand of jewelry are they wearing. Throughout the past couple of years, the number of film stars that accept fees for wearing a brand’s designs or jewels at the Academy Awards and other red-carpet events has significantly increased. Lucie Greene, the author of many articles located in FT Magazine, stated that “last year US Weekly reported that Oscar host Anne Hathaway was paid $750,000 by Tiffany & Co to wear its jewels throughout the ceremony. The same story said that Gwyneth Paltrow was paid $500,000 to wear Louis Vuitton baubles during her live performance” that same night of the Oscars. Businesses are looking for every possible way they can find to market their brand and increase sales and participation. Phillip Bloch, a professional stylist who works with the popular celebrity Sandra Bullock, along with many other famous clients, views this pay-to-wear trend a smart branding strategy. “It’s a business more than ever now”, Bloch says.

Over time, the ways in which people are used to promote and essentially brand a company have evolved.  While clothing has been around for quite some time, the creative ways in which it is used has been changing in recent years.  Celebrities have been used to wear a brand and increase revenue.  As notes, extremes such as being a “walking billboard” have become more and more prominent.  As is natural in a social setting, people are extremely influential upon one another.  Thus starts the argument that as technology develops over time, the ways in which humans are used to advertise will as well.

Sasha De Vecchi, Lindsay Gallagher, Jay Reilly, Cary Welborn