July 24th, 2004
Body Billboards: The Stunts of a Streaker Have Spurred Marketers to Capitalize on Body Advertising
By Eric Noe
Crashing parties and eluding security guards with only his pasty skin as protection, British streaker Mark Roberts is known to create a stir, not to mention a laugh or two, from the audiences observing his foibles. Turns out his antics might be billable, as advertisers are exploring the benefits of using human bodies as billboards.
Roberts was convicted of trespassing and fined $1,000 in Houston last week for charging the football field nearly naked during halftime of January’s Super Bowl, but he wasn’t too concerned with the expenses.
That’s because his court costs were covered by the on-line casino GoldenPalace.com in return for painting the company’s logo across his ample midsection, he said. Exposing the logo to thousands of fans during his impromptu midfield jig, Roberts embodied a new form of advertising and possibly a new vocation — the living, breathing marketing ploy.
Having streaked 383 public events by his last count, Roberts is internationally famous enough to have filmed a TV commercial for a Spanish soccer team and posed for an underwear billboard in England.
But it’s the cheap, light-hearted publicity from his naked romps that seems to attract the most attention. Roberts said he has been contacted by well-known companies like BMW and Siemens to possibly promote their brands in future streaks, and he’s currently looking for a manager to handle his marketing possibilities in the United States
“What I’ve discovered is that my body is turning into an advertising board. It wasn’t my intent, but I hope eventually I can make some money out of this,” he said.
This type of exposure is becoming attractive to advertisers wary of sinking big money into traditional television and print ads that may or may not be reaching their target audience.
With the rise of the Internet and the dispersal of television viewers amid hundreds of broadcast and cable channels, marketers are facing a smaller potential audience and left with the task of finding more creative ways to reach customers.
“With the increased media clutter, capturing the imagination of consumers is getting more and more challenging. Smart marketing teams are trying all sorts of new things to reach their audience,” said Mary Hilton, spokesman for The American Advertising Federation, a trade organization for ad industry.
Some are sending tattoo-adorned human billboards into sporting events or popular tourist sites to promote their brands. The idea is that once the seed has been planted in a unique way, curiosity alone will motivate people to find out more about the products. The marketers hope consumers will tap into their own personal networks to spread the word.
It’s certainly cheaper than a prime-time television commercial, which can climb to $1.5 million for a 30-second Super Bowl spot. The potential upside of reaching such a large audience with these unusual stunts appears to be catching on.
Familiar names like Toyota and Dunkin’ Donuts have experimented with body advertising, banking that it doesn’t necessarily take a multimillion-dollar national ad to get people’s attention. And it doesn’t necessarily take a naked Englishman, either.
Toyota has used body art to kickstart a word-of-mouth ad campaign for its new Scion car line. In April, the Scion marketing team paid a group of people to wander Times Square in New York for several hours with various Scion-related insignias printed prominently on their foreheads. The temporary tattoos featured the name of Scion’s new “tC” sports coupe, the price of the car, the address for the Scion Web site or the simply the Scion brand name.
Aside from saving the exorbitant expense of a traditional commercial or billboard ad, the plan was to start a buzz with the inexpensive, yet memorable forehead tattoos. The young consumers targeted by the ad scheme then presumably spread word of the off-beat advertisements through the less traditional stream of cyber space.
“We think that’s how Generation Y finds out about things — through word of mouth or the Internet. They’re very tech savvy,” said Scion spokeswoman Ming-Jou Chen. “They’re all about discovery, and they communicate with their friends a lot through Web logs and chat rooms. This is a just a different way to create a buzz.”
Times Square was ideal for this type of campaign, Chen said, because of the steady parade of tourist traffic. After just a few hours of exposure, the marketing team hopes people returned to home towns across the United States and started the Scion chatter.
“What’s more important to us is who we reach and how we reach them, not just how much we spend,” Chen said.
The body billboards are a form of “guerilla” marketing, according to the AAF’s Hilton, who said the practice capitalizes on off-beat cultural trends to carve a niche market outside the traditional mainstream.
“Tattooing is big right now, and it seems like a fun way to get a brand name out and get people talking,” she said.
Dunkin’ Donuts used a similar technique to reach a group of young consumers notorious for indulging late night doughnut cravings. Last year the company recruited volunteer college students to sport forehead tattoos with the Dunkin’ Donuts logo at several arenas hosting NCAA basketball tournament games.
Like the Times Square experiment, the basketball arenas were a fit for this type of campaign as heavy foot traffic ensured the ads were seen by thousands attending the games. These types of events require very little in the way of man-power or financial commitment from the companies.
The body-branding practice is still not widespread, and Hilton said most guerilla techniques are so new that no one has studied their effectiveness. But with such little risk involved there seems to be little deterring others from trying it — at least until people like Roberts start charging as much as traditional corporate spokesman for their billboarding duties.
Roberts, who raises and donates charity money for each of his streaks, insists that he never thought of the marketing possibilities when he began streaking 11 years ago. Exposing himself was merely a humorous way to get attention, and that remains his motivation today, even when crashing a virtual national holiday like the Super Bowl.
“The main thing is I get a kick from making people laugh. And to hear that roar from 70,000 people is a great feeling,” he said.
For the advertisers, that type of “exposure” is priceless.