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Ad Tattoos Get Under Some People's Skin

By Michael McCarthy, April 4, 2002

Omnipresent advertisers are exploring their final frontier: ad 'tattoos' on human bodies.

Tonya Harding, Todd Bridges and Danny Bonaduce sported temporary tattoos for online casino Golden Palace in Fox's recent tacky but highly rated Celebrity Boxing show.

The trio join middleweight champion Bernard 'The Executioner' Hopkins, who has worn the casino's Internet address on his back in bouts. NBA star Rasheed Wallace was approached to wear ad tattoos last season, but his agent passed.

The idea of athletes using their bodies to promote companies is attracting a growing number of critics. The Nevada Athletic Commission has tried to ban them, saying they 'demean' the sport of boxing. The NBA bans the wearing of 'corporate insignia' except on shoes and league-supplied gear. Yes, that includes players' bodies, says spokesman Mike Bass.

'It's frightening that advertisers would literally brand people,' says Gary Ruskin, director of consumer watchdog group Commercial Alert. 'It's a perfect example of commercialism: that everything should be for sale, including the skin on a person's back.'

But athletes counter that body billboards are a free-speech issue. Much of the criticism is just sour grapes, says Bridges, 37, former star of Diff'rent Strokes. 'It's free enterprise. If somebody had thought of it before Golden Palace, they'd have done it.'

Ad tattoos also offer almost free exposure. Golden Palace paid only the talent, not Fox, for tattoos seen by 15.5 million U.S. viewers. Web visitors rose 200% in the 24 hours after the March 13 show, and Golden Palace now is recruiting more for its 'celebrity body billboard' plan, says spokesman Jeff Bernstein. More than 20 fighters have been paid varying amounts. Hopkins has made about $100,000, while the Celebrity Boxing trio will make 'low five figures' apiece, says Bernstein.

The body billboard program got off to a rough start: Hopkins sweated off his first tattoo. He and others now wear tattoos applied by henna artist Nicole Baum that last longer. Bridges says his lasted seven to eight days. Golden Palace sees little difference between logos on uniforms and on skin. 'Has anybody been more of a billboard for a company than Michael Jordan with Nike?' asks Bernstein.

Madison Avenue is wary, but 'looking at' ad tattoos as a new medium, says Lisa Donohue, strategy director at media services firm Starcom.

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