Living Body As A Corporate Identity Cultural Studies Essay

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According to Fry (2004) The use of body branding dates back to 2002, where, a online gambling website paid professional boxers to fight with a temporary tattoo of the Golden Palace logo branded on their backs through televised matches. This in turn stirred uproar amongst regular sponsors about the new form of marketing that undermined their own brand exposure, but sure enough not long after the event people within the advertising field as well as potential body advertisers became familiar and intrigued about the new and potentially powerful medium. (Fry, K et al. 2004) Since then many contact sports, such as basketball players, started making use of body advertising and within the same year people started imploring advertisers to rent their bodies as mobile ad spaces within society.(Votano & Parham 2004) This rise in interest for body advertising as moved to new platforms of requesting for the use of their body as ad space, these platforms include online sites such as, and Living in which people, in their request, go as far as explaining what brands they want as well as what part of their body it will be branded on followed by a price tag at which their specified ad space will be rented out for. (Fry, K et al. 2004)

At this point in time it is difficult to determine the future of such an advertising medium and whether it will become part of the everyday integrated marketing tool arsenal at the fingertips of advertisers to use when they deem fit; or whether it will reach its peek and gradually fade away like many trends do.(Parmar 2003) Irrespective of whether this form of advertising has an expiration date on it or not, it is important to note the progression of branding with respects to the communicative values that tattoos hold within society, which I will explore further throughout this lengthy essay.

In this paper I aim to explore as to how branding has progressed to the point we are now, where the human body is commodified into being just another form of advertising brand identities. This form of body modification holds a duality of value; one being capitalistic value while the other is the merge between the values of communicating ones individual identity and the identity of chosen brands'. Thus the purpose of this paper is to (a) explore the communicative value that tattoos hold in assisting with defining our identity in society and (b) how corporations are using their brands as tools to construct individualised identities for members of society to ultimately transform the human body into a living billboard for brand exposure.

It is important to firstly understand that this paper does not aim to disrupt or skew views about tattoos and the reasoning behind the practice; but rather it is a discussion about why tattoos hold meaning for the individual with respects to the development of ones self-expression and unique identity. It is clear to say that the discourses behind tattoos and tattoo practices transcend the boundaries of self-expression into areas revolving one heritage, culture, economical background and political status. The focus of this paper however is on the overview of the communicative potential and how it is used to portray ones identity irrespective of their individual culture.

Tattoo Lingo

To gain a better understanding of why people decide to consciously get tattooed and how the tattoo, which has been permanently added to the individual's body, conveys his or her identity; one must first deconstruct the reason for the creation of tattoos within a general scope of different cultures that have made use of this practice. Although there is very little research that has explored into whether people view their tattoos as being a tool of communication in modern society, there is substantial proof that many different cultures around the world have made use of tattoos in various ways to sum degree communicate a specific message to other members of society.(Doss & Ebesu Hubbard 2009) An example of a culture making use of tattoos for communicative purpose would be the British army in the 19th century would brand soldiers that deserted the battlefield with a "D" which would be representative of them being known as deserters to the other soldiers (Brouwer, 1998). The Maori also used tattoos, but in a much more elaborate and complex manner, placed on their face that conveyed to other members of the Maori culture their rank within society and ancestral heritage of an individual's family. (Simmons, 1986)

Based on the examples shared above it is clear that the way tattoos have been used suggest that they do in fact carry so form of communicative value in relaying information within cultural societies. Atkinson and Young (2001) argued, that the corporeal being could be seen as an "evocative social text" (2001: 119) or "a billboard to be displayed socially"(2001: 128). This statement aligns with the use of the body as being a medium of advertising for brands and their identities. Although superficially this argument answers how the body is used as a tool for communication, however further analysis is needed to answer why people engage with this platform in expressing their identity and what influences people in terms of where they want to get tattooed and how big the tattoo should be. Kathleen Doss in the article entitled "The Communicative Value of Tattoos: The Role of Public Self-Consciousness on Tattoo Visibility" argues that the reason behind a persons choice in getting tattooed is based on the individuals attempt to control the image they convey to others around them. Doss also states that people who have deliberately chosen to get tattooed in a visible location on their body know that other will see their tattoos and might form judgements about them. In other words, the individual endorses the notion that tattoos have communicative value and are directly related to the decision for it being openly visible to others. (2009: 64)

In the article "On the Nature of Public and Private Self-Consciousness" Allan Fenigstein stated that public self-consciousness is personality characteristic where the individual is observant to how their actions and appearance are seen by other members of society, but they are especially aware about their public image (1987: 546). This statement supports the argument where Doss states that an individual will be more inclined to engage with impression management if their public image is high, however if their public image is low they will be less inclined to engage with impression management.(Doss & Ebesu Hubbard 2009) This being said, the person's decision of where the tattoo will be placed and what size it will be, which pertains to the issue of its visibility to the public, could be influenced by the way members of society respond to the tattoo as well as their self-consciousness about how the tattoo will be interpreted by the people around them.

Theoretical Lens

The Mindful Body

Michel Foucault in the article "Discipline & Punish" tracks the social control of bodies by means of taking a historical route in analysing discipline institutions from the 17th century to the present day (Foucault 1977). His concept of the panopticon, however translate further than just prisons and into the social sphere of society. The panopticon is not a physical constraint but rather a visual one in which the whole ideology works on the control of bodies through underlying consciousness that one is always been observed.(Foucault 1977) The panopticon is a construct devised by Foucault in an attempt to create the perfect prison in which the prisoners are under constant observation by this structure that was designed to allow maximum surveillance of the inmates. This structure is comprised of cells that are always lit and strategically placed around a central focal point, being a watchtower. The tower is shrouded in darkness, allowing the prisoners to be unaware of when they are being watched and by whom.(1977: 3) This construct translates to the control of social behaviour by means of establishing the need for the individual to be mindful of his or her behaviour so as to conform to certain constraints that best suit what is deemed socially acceptable.

Postmodernism and the Destabilisation of Identity

Many academics such as Kathleen Doss, Stephen Littlejohn and Karen Foss, have theorised about the implications revolving around postmodernism and its origins. The point that they both agree on however is that postmodernism emerged with the end of the industrial society and the beginning of an information era (Littlejohn & Foss 2007).

Votano (2004) in the article "Body Billboards and Brand Colonization: Embodied Corporate Advertising in Postmodern Branding Culture" argues that postmodernism is a result of the development of the information era, however she goes on to state that postmodernism is a break away from modernity which it's emphasis was on stabilised meaning derived from established scientific reasoning. In other words, there exists a rebellion towards the constructs of knowledge established by the information era and a pursuit of identifying individual interactions with knowledge and the power relations attached to it (2004: 88). Littlejohn and Foss (2005) validate this by saying that "the production of commodities has given way to the production and manipulation of knowledge" (2005: 49) This statement links back to the issue of corporations manipulating the use of knowledge to encourage people to see their brands as intrinsic parts in the creation of their own identity as individuals. Brands are producing social realities through the use of symbolic forms such as tattoos and other forms of language that holds a communicative value within different societies. This manipulation of social realities and constructs that form the basis of what is identified as the norm, are leading to a destabilisation of ones own self identification process. This disruption causes a shift within the individual and directs them to question what the basis of self-identification is, becoming more susceptible to external influences.

The normalisation of the constant invasion of manipulated advertising messages generated by brands within all types of spaces, including the body, is indicative of corporate identity being set at the level of culture due to the postmodern condition.(Votano & Parham 2004)

Postmodernism in retrospect to Foucault's panopticon concept are similar with respects to the fact that both control social behaviour by establishing the 'mindful' body in which the individual reflects on the image that he or she is portraying to the general public as well as making sure that the behaviour is socially accepted. Though both theories in essence strive for the same end result of behaviour conditioning, they different in the regard that postmodernism conditions people via the disruption of normative information. This information is used as guidelines for the generation of ones identity based on the person's own culture and heritage. Postmodernism distorts this by feeding them manipulated advertising messages aimed at creating culture that the individual feels they belong to.

Social Constructionism

A different theoretical framework that can be used as a lens in decoding body billboards as canvases for corporate identities is the social constructionist theory. This theory according to Kim (2001) "Everything involved in the social world of men and women is made by them"(2001: 165). She goes on to argue that the social world is one that is based on human consciousness within the focal areas of their beliefs, ideas, languages, signs and signals with the way they interact with others and the environment around them. She states the fact that the world they live in, having been created by them, makes it understandable to them and their behaviour and self-awareness is influenced by it. This being said she concludes with saying that the social world, been created by the individuals living in it, forms part of who they are as corporeal beings and the social being created in part by physical entities. In other words both the individual and society and integral parts of each other and form the foundations of who and what they are (2001: 165).

Ian Owen in the article "Social constructionism and the theory, practice and research of psychotherapy: A phenomenological psychology manifesto" agrees with Kim in the respect that the social constructionist theory is the formation of society and social behaviour by individuals living in it. He however goes on to say that there are two forms of opposing ideologies that must be unpacked in order to achieve a better understanding of the social constructionist theory. The first ideology is something that he refers to as "groupism" which is the human behaviour that can only be understood within the overall social context. It in essence states that other people in everyday human interaction are more influential on an individual than his or her own characteristics. In simple terms, individuals encompass sheepish behaviour by means of changing or doing what others do and deem socially acceptable, so goes the saying "monkey see, monkey do". (Owen 1985) The other ideology is what he refers to as "individualism" which has to with the influence of one individual over another with regards to their unique characteristics and values. This means that the individual tends to look up to someone else in respects to what they aim to aspire to be like (Owen 1985). Both these ideologies, though seen from different perspectives, result in the same underlying fact that people are influenced by others in society. This statement enforces the reasoning behind the body being commodified as a human ad space for corporate identities. Therefore creating a "living" brand identity that others within society will be able to relate to and ultimately aspire to having that identity become part of who they are as individuals.

It is important to note that all the theories that have been discussed up to this point, all have a hand in supporting and reinforcing the argument within the exploration of why the living body is given away to brands as medium to be exploited. These theories serve as lenses to ultimately assist in unpacking this research topic and not try to decode and understand the reason behind each theory and its purpose as a whole.

Personifying Brands

Origins of Branding

The role of branding plays a major part in the context of the use of body billboard advertising. To successfully unpack and understand such a broad topic such as branding it is crucial to start by briefly looking at how it started and work through the stages of evolution. According to Mark Galagher (2009) the origins of branding started with the sole purpose of communicating identification of ownership to other members of society, which can be seen in the early practices of branding animals (2009: 2). Karl Moore in the article "The birth of brand: 4000 years of branding" confirms this point by stating that in the early bronze age, crafts men from Harappan cities created small square seals that had animal figures etched into them which were used as trademarks. These seals conveyed the identity of the merchant selling a certain piece of merchandise ( 2008: 8). Galagher goes on to discuss how identification systems were used by consumers to navigate through different types of commodities but as branding shifted from a commodity-driven model to that of a value-driven model so did the meaning behind brand (2009: 2). Consumers were no longer using brands to identify commodities such as rice, sugar and cotton based on its manufacturer but rather on the expectation of perceived value and quality.

In the early 70's the concept of "brand" took on larger ideologies of image and values which substantially shifted its meaning. This shift took on many new developments towards marketing strategies so as to compete with other brands, not on the level of product superiority, but rather on the front of fighting over the space consumers with consumers' minds. This concept was named "brand positioning" as it aimed in painting the brands image in a good light within the consumers mind by creating good product experiences. These perceptions would then pave the way to success by leading to product recognition when in the store and product recall when discussing the category the brand is in with other people. (Galagher & Savard 2009)

Brand Identity

In the article "What is a Brand"(2006) Bates states that with the introduction of what image brands convey to the public, along with the value in respects to quality, durability and personality appeal attached, put immense amount of pressure on brands to differentiate within the market in order to maintain competitor advantage (2006: 4). According to Bates (2006) in the case of Coke-Cola and Pepsi-Cola, they both are brands competing within the same category, but still manage to maintain dominant in the soft drink market. The main reason behind their success as brands is not only the quality of the service that the consumer receives with their products, but rather the strength and appeal of the personalities that the brands have created with in the mind of the consumer. The strong recognition of their names, colours and logos is what symbolises the promise of high quality and satisfaction to the consumer (Bates 2006). Galagher (2009) validates this argument by saying that the promise that brands express to consumers, lives in the consumers' mind as an expectation and when the brand promise and the consumers' expectations meet, the brands holds immense value for both parties (2009: 2).

As time progresses the war between brands and the fight to gain leverage within the consumers' mind rages on. This constant back and forth leads brands in the pursuit of new ways and tactics in gaining more brand exposure in order to gain the upper hand against opposing brands. The success of the brands however is completely dependent on their ability to meet consumers needs while staying true to their brand promise when delivering the product or service to the consumer (Bates 2006). This discussion about brands and branding tactics is one that could lead to a completely new line of thought and discourses, however it is important to note that this paper's focus is on the that aspect of branding that revolves around the creation and use of body billboards and not the semantics of branding as a whole.

Branding the Social Identity

The understanding of the evolution of branding and what it is now creates clear links to how it assisted in creating the concept of body billboards. Brands since the early 70's have been fighting among themselves for the attention and loyalty of consumers. It is the consumers' appeal towards the brand identity and the fulfilment of its promise that ultimately drives the purchase decision, which at the end of the day gives a brand the competitive edge over other brands (Bates 2006) Corporations' need to increase brand awareness and brand equity within the consumers mind is what has lead to the construct of body billboards. Postmodernism as aided this in the sense that it is its influence in disrupting the natural process of the individuals' development of their identity based on their own culture, heritage, beliefs and language that has left them open to any direction that closely fits what they stand for. This disruption is the rejection of modernity, which is symbolic of rationality based on scientific reasoning (Votano & Parham 2004). Brands are manipulating knowledge to their advantage by means of creating an identity that gives individuals a sense of belonging, which leads them to believe that brands are part of their own identity as individuals (Doss & Ebesu Hubbard 2009)

Brands recognise the communicative value of the body within society and try to capitalise on this by incentivising individuals to brand themselves with the brands iconography, which to the person is beneficial, as they perceive this as being paid to express themselves and their identity proudly within society. (Doss & Ebesu Hubbard 2009) Other members of society view this expression of ones own identity through the use of the brand iconography, and in turn tend to also do the same, which according to the social constructionist theory is derived from the phenomena called "groupism" as stated by Ian Owen (1985). The concept of "groupism" involves around the fact that an individual's behaviour is more likely to influence another person more than his or her own traits(Owen 1985). This concept is one that keeps perpetuating the influencing of more and more members of society to follow suit and do the same thing as it is seen as socially cool.

As Foucault (1977) stated in his concept of how the panopticon evokes control over its inmates, so does it translate into a social sphere where manipulation of information within the post modernistic era gives way to the self awareness of how people view themselves and the communicative value that their bodies convey to the public through mediums such as tattoos. This mindful behaviour is the result of the awareness that they are under constant scrutiny from judgemental perspectives of others in society, which leads them to conform to certain constraints that are seen as socially accepted (Foucault 1977). The need to express ones self expression externally is because of the persons desire to be validated by means of looking up to someone else's identity that commands the attention that the aspire to have. This is like the "individualism" concept stated by Owen (1985) in which an individual that will aspire to make choices that will result in their identity being recognised within a social sphere(Owen 1985). This kind of dedication and proud presentation of ones identity can be seen in the case study of Nike and its employees. The employees brand the iconography of the swoosh on their leg to show their loyalty to the brand as well as communicating their own characteristics of their identity as an individual through the brand's identity (Votano & Parham 2004).


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