Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Recent branding efforts have outraged the public
It was another entry in the “What will those godless marketers think of next?” While watching the rippling biceps of NBA players, some wily entrepreneur had a brainstorm: Why not sell the rights to tattoo athletes with corporate logos?

League rules forbid wearing logos on individual uniforms, but they don’t say squat about skin. It seems the next logical step in the transformation of sports figures into human sandwich boards. Besides, they’re not called “brands” for nothing.

But for anyone who has visited the Web site of TMark, a virtual gathering place for the WTO protester crowd, this ploy is neither new nor original. Organizers of random acts of performance art designed to prick the leviathan hide of global capitalism, the TMark folks claim to have raised $6,000 for a branding project of their own. The goal is to encourage a major sports apparel label to support an underprivileged child?in exchange for tattooing the kid with a brand logo at birth. If TMark is willing to settle for a promising high-school prospect instead of a baby, it may have a deal.

It’s not the first time the parodists beat the marketers to the punch. Last year, Esquire ran a satirical piece touting a new business: paying motorists to turn their private cars into billboards on wheels. Who knew there were already startups in that very business whose executives read the story in horror, afraid someone had a competitive jump on them.

One man’s ludicrous and tasteless parody marketing ploy is another man’s business plan. The bad news is that reality threatens to put the satirists out of business. The good news is they can always get jobs as trend spotters in think tanks.

No one would mistake Alcatel’s borrowing of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, though some have argued it’s offensive. African American leaders have gone on record with their shock and dismay at the commercial desecration of this sacred civic moment.

It’s not certain that consumers share their outrage. Alcatel reports it hasn’t received much critical feedback from viewers. Of course, they already know the answer to the question “Is nothing sacred?” is no.

Still, the yearning for sacred space is an ancient one. After a decade of consumers witnessing everything and everyone become a billboard, a backlash has developed. In the Oregon legislature, a bill has been introduced to prohibit public institutions from taking corporate names. In Colorado, a group of citizens has sued the Denver Metropolitan Football Stadium District to prevent the sale of naming rights to Invesco.

The plaintiffs want to retain the name Mile High Stadium, and one doesn’t have to be a Ralph Nader supporter to sympathize. Yet how much image mileage can Invesco get from putting its name on a stadium in a city whose citizens sued it? Is the relative lack of corporate interest in buying subway stops from the Boston transit system related to the outcry against it?

The switch is grotesque on esthetic grounds alone. After all, replacing the bucolic Boston Garden with the steel-and-glass Fleet Center is the stuff of which consumer rebellion is made.

Coca-Cola, for its part, decided the advantage of an exclusive distribution deal with schools was
not worth the heat it got for desecrating another sacred space: schools. Politicians, sensing queasiness among parents regarding the commercialization of schools, began decrying the devil’s bargain educators had made with purveyors of sugared water without nutritional value.
Coke and Pepsi now vow to cut down on the signage and stock machines with more of their water and juice lines?before Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who wants a federal law regulating soft drinks in schools, does it for them.
It may be too late, however, to save Rev. King from commercial “desecration.” He is becoming the post-ideological relic known as an icon. Before the purchase of King’s image by Alcatel, his appearance in the Apple “Think different” campaign recast this political activist as a rebel consumer. Now Alcatel turns him into a metaphor for a value-free selling proposition: connection. Yet to communicate that message, the ad could just as easily have used footage of Hitler at Nuremberg.

The Alcatel ad does not profane King; to the contrary, the company wants nothing more than to rub its image against his glory. But it doesn’t have a clue about what that glory was. King’s words are not sacred, but they do mean something. Or at least they did.