February 11th, 2003

In-Your-Face Marketing: Ad Agency Rents Foreheads

By Erin White
Wall Street Journal

It finally happened. A London ad agency is selling ads on people’s foreheads.

The small shop, Cunning Stunts Communications Ltd., is recruiting university students to wear brand logos on their foreheads for £4.20 ($6.83 or €6.36) an hour. While on duty, the human billboards are permitted to shower, but not to rub their foreheads vigorously (the tattoos are temporary). They also must agree to be out and about with other people for three or four hours a day. If not, they might be nabbed by the agency’s "mystery shoppers," who monitor places the students should be.

The idea is the brainchild of John Carver, 45 years old, the co-founder of Cunning Stunts, an independent 25-person ad and marketing agency in London’s trendy Clerkenwell neighborhood. Mr. Carver dreamed it up while talking with other ad people about how to market a cigarette.

He was thinking of ways a cigarette brand could communicate with people, now that there are so many restrictions on tobacco marketing in Britain. His fascination with tattoos—though he has none himself—sparked the idea: Why not advertise on a human head? A living cigarette ad, of course, might irk the health authorities. "But [a forehead ad] would look great with the right kind of brands—music, fashion, drinks," Mr. Carver says.

Young friends, relatives and co-workers took part in an agency test of the idea recently around London, brandishing logos for the guy magazine FHM and the action-adventure cable channel CNX, owned by AOL Time Warner Inc. FHM, owned by Britain’s Emap PLC, is considering a campaign. CNX says it likes the idea so much it hopes to back a campaign in the next few weeks.

"We want to be the first people to seriously use foreheads as media," says Richard Kilgarriff, vice president and director of channels for CNX, Cartoon Network UK and Boomerang. "Guerrilla advertising is very popular, but it often lacks a certain charm," he adds. These forehead tattoos are "an extension of the sandwich board, but a bit more organic."

Cunning Stunts is still working out how much to charge advertisers and how many students to hire for any given campaign. Meanwhile, it has posted recruiting notices on campus bulletin boards and says it has already heard from about 1,000 interested students.

Not every applicant will make the cut for a given campaign. The agency plans to select only suitably hip forehead owners. "A geek wearing a T-shirt does a brand more harm than good," Mr. Carver explains. The agency says it will screen applicants—or, as Mr. Carver calls it, "casting living advertising."

Still, it isn’t clear how much control the agency and client can exert over a bunch of 20-somethings with foreheads for hire. Cunning Stunts plans to give the students cameras, probably those that automatically mark each photo with the time it is taken, to snap photos proving their whereabouts. And before FHM signs on for a full campaign, its marketers say they want to feel comfortable their human billboards reflect well on the magazine.

Nial Ferguson, group marketing manager for Emap’s men’s lifestyle magazines, says he wants to make sure the ad-wearers don’t insult FHM when asked about the ad. "These people have to be to a certain extent brand advocates for the magazine," he says. Ideally, forehead advertisers for FHM also should be cool, reasonably fashionable and "good with the ladies."

There is, of course, the matter of the reaction the ads are likely to provoke. Stuart Charles, a 28-year-old film student in London, helped Cunning Stunts test the idea last week. He wandered around London’s Covent Garden and Soho areas, ducking into shops along Oxford Street. "I got some funny looks," he says, noting that an Asian tourist even snapped a photo of him. About half the people just ignored him. "This is London for God’s sake," he says. "It’s full of bizarre things."

Mr. Charles hit a bar with some friends that night, logo still on display. "Some friends were laughing," he admits. "Then they realized I was getting 50 quid, and they weren’t." He visited an arty film house the next evening and elicited some disapproving glances from the crowd.

"They were thinking, ‘It’s really offensive and capitalism gone too far,’ " he says.

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