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Tattoos leave mark on ads

The traditional symbols of rebellion are going mainstream as corporations aim to cash in on their cachet.

November 27, 2007|From the Associated Press

NEW YORK — What does Angelina Jolie have in common with Josef Stalin and Thomas Edison as well as 2 out of every 5 Americans between the ages of 26 and 40?

They all have or had tattoos.

Once seen as a silent cry of rebellion, tattoos now possess a status so firmly mainstream that advertisers are using them to market products as diverse as tires, shoes, wine and energy drinks. That has its downside, though. The more acceptable tattoos become, the more they lose their edginess -- and their value as advertising.

"There is always an element of rebellion or rite of passage with these things," said David Crockett, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of South Carolina. "What makes them interesting is how the marketplace appropriates that rebelliousness and serves that back to you in the form of an energy drink."

The 7-Eleven store chain recently started selling an energy drink called Inked, aimed at people who have tattoos or those who want to think of themselves as the tattoo type. The company plans to sell the drink at motorcycle rallies and tattoo conventions.

"We wanted to create a drink that appealed to men and women, and the tattoo culture has really become popular with both genders," said 7-Eleven's manager of noncarbonated beverages, Michele Little. "The rite of tattoo passage isn't only limited to the young, but also to those who think and act young," she said.

As the attention of young consumers gets spread among television, blogs, online video and other distractions, marketers have resorted to alternative ways to get their interest.

Advertisers use tattoos as a cultural icon and as a method to deliver the message, said Kevin Lane Keller, a marketing professor at the business school of Dartmouth College.

"It's an attempt to do something different in a fresh way," he said.

In a never-ending quest to appeal to the young and young-minded, companies such as Goodyear Tire & Rubber and Volvo are using tattoos in ads and promotions. Even wine sellers have adopted the tattoo, with managers of the popular Yellow Tail brand sending 600,000 temporary tattoos out with an October issue of the New Yorker magazine and importer Billington Wines taking the name Big Tattoo Wines for its $10-a-bottle brand.

For three years, Goodyear's Dunlop tire unit has offered a set of free tires to anyone who will get the company's flying-D logo tattooed somewhere on his or her body, and 98 people have accepted the offer. Some were brand loyalists who already owned Dunlops, and others were tattoo fans who wanted to add to their body art, Dunlop brand marketing manager Janice Consolacion said. One returned for his third Dunlop tattoo this year.

For those friendly to the idea of being a walking billboard, the website leaseyourbody.com connects advertisers with people who want to be paid for wearing tattoo advertisements.

Volvo recently utilized tattoos in another way: creating a fictional character whose body designs spelled out the coordinates of an undersea location of $50,000 in gold coins and the keys to a new car. Linda Gangeri, national advertising manager of Volvo Cars of North America, said the tattoo man was a way to get people to think differently about the Volvo brand.

Tattoos are becoming so pervasive that some see them as less effective in marketing to trendsetters.

Nathan Lin, a tattoo artist and organizer of the annual Boston Tattoo Convention, said the event's sponsors reflected the shifting demographics of tattoo culture in the U.S. This year, it was Toyota Motor Corp.'s Scion brand and Anheuser-Busch Cos.' Budweiser. Next year's convention has gotten sponsorship interest from Internet service provider NetZero and other corporate names, he said.

"It puts it far outside the stereotypes of bikers and rough types," Lin said. "People think of urban moms having tattoos."

A study done last year by the Pew Research Center showed that 36% of 18- to 25-year-olds had at least one tattoo and that 40% of 26- to 40-year-olds had at least one.

When corporations use tattoos, it's clear the art has lost some of its edginess, Crockett said.

"You've got this constant game of cat and mouse, of youth culture and these companies. That life cycle just gets shorter and shorter and shorter," he said.

General Mills has been selling Fruit Roll-Ups with tattoo-shaped cutouts that let children make temporary tongue tattoos. Nike Inc. has employed celebrity tattoo artist Mister Cartoon to design six lines of limited-edition shoes.

And just this month, glass and crystal seller Steuben Glass announced that it would sell tattoo-inspired vase and crystal sculpture designs by artist Kiki Smith.

"I would certainly say it has lost most of its social stigma," said Vince Hemingson, a writer and documentary filmmaker who runs the Vanishing Tattoo website. The American stereotype of tattoos being for military types has become passe, he said.

U.S. consumers watched as rock stars of the 1980s got tattoos. Their supermodel girlfriends followed, and that, Hemingson said, made tattoos visible on the women who are seen by many as icons of beauty.

That led to the proliferation of tattoos, as seen in Pew's survey results.

To underscore that, corporate lawyer David Kimelberg published in April a book, "INKED Inc., Tattooed Professionals," that has photos of doctors, lawyers and other executives, first in their normal work clothes, then dressed so their big tattoos can be seen.

Kimelberg, who lives and works in Boston, said the goal of the photos was to show how tattoos were gaining popularity in corporate America.

Noting the shifting trends, he writes, "The rest of the world is finally catching up to us."

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