Vol. 5, No. 1, December 2003

Corporate Logo Tattoos:
Literal Corporate Branding?

Angela Orend-Cunningham
University of Louisville


Want to get free lunches for the rest of your life?  All you have to do is get the Casa Sanchez corporate logo tattooed anywhere on your body and you can get free lunches forever!  Casa Sanchez, a Mexican restaurant in San Francisco, is not the only company offering this kind of deal (Wells 1999).  The Great Northern Brewing Company which brews Black Star Beer, recently held its second annual Black Star Beer Tattoo Contest, giving away a Harley Davidson to who ever showed up with the biggest tattoo of the "yahoo-in cowboy" company logo (Wells 1999).  More recently, the Daytona Cubs baseball team has recently announced that they will give free season tickets for life to anyone who will tattoo the Cubs logo on their body (NPR 2001).

The list of companies offering free products or discounts for people who get their corporate logo tattoos are endless and have been increasing in number over the last few years.  I should mention that these are NOT temporary tattoos--they are permanent.  The temporary logo tattoo phenomena, used by NASCAR, Ford, Reebok, Dunkin Donuts, and many other companies, has been a fairly widespread marketing strategy used over the last few years.

The idea of corporations offering free merchandise or discounts to people who permanently tattoo themselves with a corporate logo seems to have started with an April Fool's Day joke.  In 1994 NPR's "All Things Considered" program reported that companies such as Pepsi, KFC, Apple Computer, and the GAP were offering discounts to teenagers who would tattoo their ears with corporate logos (NPR 1994).  In exchange for branding themselves with the corporate symbol, consumers were told they would receive a lifetime 10% discount on that company's products.  As a result of the program, "Tattooed Ears Cause New Teen Craze," teenagers were said to be calling in masses only to be disappointed to find out the campaign was a hoax.     

Well, corporate logo tattoos are no longer a joke.  I have been researching this topic for a few years now and have been surprised at the number of people getting them and the various forms that the tattoos take.  Even more interesting than consumers who are paid in exchange for becoming human billboards are those who are paying to have it done to them.  For a few decades now, fans of Harley Davidson have been tattooing themselves with various versions of that motorcycle company's logo.  According to the International Trademark Association, the Harley tattoo is still the most widespread corporate logo tattoo in North America (Sheldon, et al. 2001).  In recent years, however, logo tattoos have spread out into other corporate brands: Nike, Adidas, Budweiser, Corona, Apple computers, Ford, Chevy, Volkswagen, just to mention a few.  In No Logo(1999), Naomi Klein argues that the Nike swoosh tattoo was reported as the most requested tattoo in North America (56).  While it seems this statement was based upon personal observations and not empirical research, the fact still remains that the Nike swoosh, among other corporate logo tattoos, are on the rise (Magill 2002).  Indeed, in 1997 Grace Bradberry stated in The Times of London that "having a designer logo tattooed onto one's ankle or wrist has become the ultimate in chic (Bradberry 1997: F1).

What is going on here?  Why do people feel so connected to a brand that they will literally become human billboards and permanently tattoo themselves with a corporate logo?  Is this brand loyalty, brand fetishism, an extreme example of the Culture Industry, human commodification, postmodern consumer tribes, or just a new postmodern play on self-expression?  Or, is it a mix of all of these?

Before answering this question, it is important to understand the socio-historical aspects of tattoos.  Throughout most of human history, tattoos were used to signify one's status within the social structure.  As Bryan Turner argues, "body marks in pre-literate societies were permanent, collective, and largely obligatory" because "they were set within a shared culture of collective meanings" (1999: 39).   In modern times, the meaning and motivations behind tattoos began to shift from representations of collective self-identity to individualistic representations of self-expression and individuality.  Many modern tattoo consumers indicate that they see their tattoos as an attack on social conformity and argue that their tattoos evoke feelings of self-empowerment and individual self-expression and often express social resistance through bodily deviance  (Polhemus and Proctor 1978; Sanders 1989; Velliquette et. al 1998).   In this sense, modern tattoo consumers are said to be resisting dominant cultural ideology.  Clinton Sanders sums up the modern argument for tattoos this way: "the power of (the) tattoo, like that of street graffiti is primarily derived from its ability to outrage member of conventional society" (1989: 162). 

While the notion that tattoos are an attempt to resist mainstream culture should not be wholly discounted, its basic argument has become highly questionable when we try to apply it to corporate logo tattoos in the sense that major corporations are a part of dominant mainstream culture.  Additionally, tattoos in general have proliferated in mainstream culture as they have become more socially acceptable and commonplace.  While complete documentation of the number of people with tattoos is not available, it is estimated that between 12 to 20 million Americans have tattoos and that the numbers are rising daily (Velliquette et al. 1997).  Additionally, tattoo establishments are currently among the top six growing businesses in America (Velliquette et al. 1997).

The postmodern explanation of tattoos tends to agree that they are expressions of identity, protest, and cultural defiance, while also accepting that they have become part of the "supermarket of style" for many tattoo consumers (Polhemus 1995).  For example, Paul Sweetman argues that even though tattoos have become a pop cultural trend, they can be more than "mere accessories" and "are employed by some as a form of anti-fashion and as a way of fixing or anchoring the reflexively constructed self" (1999: 52-53).   Others, like Bryan Turner, disagree and takes the argument one step further, adding that within postmodern society, tattoos have become "optional, decorative, impermanent, and narcissistic" (1999: 42).

The sociological perspectives on the historical meanings and motivations behind tattoos lead to several theoretical explanations concerning corporate logo tattoos.  Such markings may be expressions of personal brand loyalty to a corporation.  As one Apple tattoo recipient states, "I'm a Mac freak--I identify strongly with Apple and Mac computers--I got it done to convince myself I would always be true to Apple, not for religious or political reasons, but to convince myself that Macs are the way ahead" (Kahney 2002).

In postmodern consumer culture brands have become more than just products.  Corporations present products as being representative of certain personalities and lifestyles, consumers fetishize the brand, not the product itself. With brand fetishism, brands represent and become equated with lifestyles as brand awareness and advertising become more important than the product itself (Vanderbilt 1997).  In applying the notion of brand fetishism to corporate logo tattoos, the tattoo is an expression of what the brand represents, not necessarily a loyalty to the superiority of the product.  Advertising expert Colette Henry argues that logo tattoos represent a way for consumers to proclaim one's philosophy of life (Henry 2000).  She explains, "young Americans with Nike swoosh tattoos have adopted the advertising slogan' Just Do It!' as their personal philosophy of life" (2000).

According to Jean Baudrillard, social meanings in postmodern times are created through commodified signs that have imploded the social world (1998).  The implosion of the commodity-sign in the social world is caused by the mass reproduction of signs in advertising (and other media) that has turned the social world into a simulated "carnival of signs" where a self-referential system of signifiers makes it difficult to tell the real from the simulated real (1998).  Baudrillard insists that we are consuming not the object of the sign, but rather the system of implicit meanings that the object of the sign represents, but the meanings are simulated and meaningless.  Within the logic of consumer capitalism, the collective "carnival of signs" prevails as everything becomes a commodified product embedded with meaningless social symbols.  If Baudrillard is correct and postmodern consumption is the "active manipulation of signs" where the commodity-sign proliferates, corporate logo tattoos are nothing more than a fashion accessory in the hyperreality of postmodern consumer culture.  The human body becomes a multi-dimensional billboard representing another simulated hyperreality.   Corporate logo tattoo consumers are not interested in the product or duped by capitalism, they are simply expressing various simulations of reality and have fetishized the social meanings of the brand and commodity-sign logo.

Consumers of corporate logo tattoos might also be internalizing the powerful ideology of the Culture Industry, a concept developed by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer in the Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947).   The Culture Industry is said to create, market, and maintain dominant cultural ideology through mass standardization and powerful marketing strategies.  Adorno and Horkheimer argue that under capitalism, all of culture will eventually be subsumed by the Culture Industry (2002).  Hence, the dominant ideology in consumer capitalism is individuality and self-expression through consumption.  People attempt to represent themselves and their individuality through the commodities they consume.  For example, one Nike tattoo consumer proclaimed that he got his Nike swoosh tattoo because, "I wanted to be different, and I thought that [my Nike tattoo] would be" (Stouder 2003).  Undoubtedly, Adorno and Horkheimer would argue that his tattoo was just another example of the commercialization of art (the logo as a form of pop art) and an expression of pseudo-individuality, not true individuality.  The very idea that corporate logos are everywhere within consumer culture negates the notion that their logo consumption is an individual self-expression of individuality.

While the postmodernist arguments do not have too much in common with Adorno and Horkheimer, they do seem to agree that everything in society, including the human body, has become commodified.    So, it should come as no surprise that corporate logo tattoos have become a popular trend.  Michel Foucault argues that the "body is the prisoner of the culture" and maintains that the body is inherently a social creation that is shaped by ideology; however, he also argues that the body can at the same time express resistance to dominant ideology (1979).  For Foucault, power is not in the hands of only a few, but is instead exercised through the power relations of ideological discourse.  Power is diffused in society through complex social networks.  Within this argument, corporate logo tattoo consumers are not passively manipulated (as the Culture Industry thesis would have us believe) into internalizing a dominant ideology, but are instead actively engaged in an exercise of power, albeit within the context of hegemonic discourse. Corporate logo tattoo consumers may have commodified the human body into capitalistic discourse just as they would any other product.  In this respect, it is simply an aspect of human commodification where the consumer is engaging in a conversation with society.  On the other hand, because power is not a zero sum game, it appears that getting a logo tattoo can also be an expression of resistance or a cultural exercise of power.

Within similar ideas of human commodification, corporate logo tattoos could be an end to individualism itself and a celebration of mass conformity through multiple loyalties within transferable postmodern consumer tribes.  In The Time of the Tribes (1996), Michel Maffesoli argues that postmodern society has "gone beyond individualism" and towards collective neotribalistic cultures that are "organized around the catchwords, brand names and sound-bites of consumer culture" (1996:9).  In this argument, corporate logo tattoo consumers are engaged in a "Dionysian celebration" of consumer culture.  Consumer tribes are not bound to any particular place or tradition, their loyalties are voluntary and optional.  In an attempt to form personal and social identities, consumers begin to identify with the dominant discourse of consumer culture.  Corporate logo tattoo consumers are thus expressing collective representations of consumer culture, not individual representations of individuality. 

So, which of these explanations is it?  Are corporate logo tattoo consumers duped into the hegemonic discourse, showing resistance to it, internalizing it, or just reacting to the fragmentation of postmodern times by commodifying the body and aesthetic art forms?   Unfortunately, at this time sociology cannot answer these questions since there has not been sufficient research done focusing specifically on corporate logo tattoos.  More sociological research is necessary to uncover the meanings and motivations that the recipients of corporate logo tattoos give to the situation.  This is exactly what I am proposing to do.  If you, or someone you know has a corporate logo tattoo, please contact me at logotattoos@hotmail.com



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