5, No. 1, December 2003
Corporate Logo Tattoos:
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
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.
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.
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
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?
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).
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).
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"
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).
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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