Tattoo Advertising/Human Billboards

By Eric Goldman

One of my contracts final exam questions last semester involved a person who sold tattoo rights to an advertiser. This prompted me to do a little research, and it turns out this phenomenon isn’t all that new. Apparently it arose in 2001/2002 in the context of athletes selling tattoos.

Since then, tattoo advertising has become fairly commonplace. See here and here. People appear willing to brand just about any part of their body for the right price. (For a satire on the lengths people might go to, see this barely office-safe article).

Some companies, such as, (marginally office-safe), Body Billboardz, and, even claim to match tattoo sellers and advertising buyers. However, according to the Globe and Mail, there are more tattoo sellers than advertising buyers (although brand name advertisers like Toyota have used it).

Wisely, most sellers only promise to get temporary tattoos. (According to HowStuffWorks, up to 50% of people who get tattoos regret their decision). Some sellers also have very strict standards. For example, one seller’s rules: no swastikas, nothing “racial,” no adult stores and no “666, the mark of the beast”.

In contrast, I think the bad-idea-for-cheapest-price winner is Kari Smith (a/k/a Karolyne Smith), a Utah woman who got a permanent tattoo on her forehead for $10,000. Check out the photos here and here or, if you’re really fascinated, watch the video. Others have auctioned off forehead space, but I believe most of them have either gotten temporary tattoos or got paid more. Note that out of the goodness of their hearts, gave Kari an extra $5,000 for her troubles. For her part, Kari said she picked the online gambling site over other potential advertisers “because they work with a lot of charities.”

Meanwhile, the original auction listing on eBay paints a fascinating psychological picture. In some ways, the money seems secondary to Kari’s quest for 15 minutes of fame (at the cost of a lifetime of bangs).

This tattoo-advertising phenomenon reminds me a little of the hype about driving free ad-wrapped cars during the dot com bubble. If there were ever any legitimate companies in that business, they all went bankrupt. I suspect the only people who actually made money were intermediaries who charged potential drivers a fixed fee to be listed in a database. Similarly, I notice that several of the existing sites charge potential sellers some upfront fees to participate (do these smell like a SCAM to you?), and some of the early sites (like Headvertise and Headvertisement), are already gone. Alas, I guess all good things must come to an end eventually.