Human Billboards Selling Ads on Bodies

PHOTO: Alex Brenda, seen in this undated photo, is selling advertising space on his mortar board to help pay off his student loans.
Courtesy Alex Brenda

Like most college seniors, Alex Benda of Michigan is facing a mountain of student loan debt when he graduates this May. Unlike most, however, he has figured out a way to dig himself out: He is selling $30,000 worth of advertising on his graduation hat.

Benda has divvied up the top of his mortar board into 100 1-inch-squares, priced at $300 each.

If he sells them all, he'll clear $30,000, and be able to pay off 100 percent of his student debt.

When he pulls off this stunt (and his hat) at graduation, he will join a small but growing club: People who've turned themselves into living billboards.

Some, like Benda, simply wear their advertisements.

Others have had advertisements tattooed onto their heads, their foreheads, the backs of their heads, their faces and their thighs. The thigh ads can be found on women in Tokyo who, as part of their deal with advertisers, wear short skirts and tall stockings so as to frame their ads to best advantage.

A mother has sold advertising on her pregnant belly.

Another mother has sold advertising on her child.

OK, then. Off and away into a strange new world of body advertising ...

1.

Mortar Board Billboard

When Alex Benda graduates this May from the University of Michigan at Flint, he will be wearing a mortar board worth (he hopes) $30,000 -- the sum of all his student loans.

The hat's flat top can accommodate 100 advertisements, each 1-inch square. If he sells all of them for $300 a pop, he's debt-free.

According to his page on gogetfunding.com, he's only 10 percent of the way to his goal, with only 99 days to go until graduation. Benda, though, isn't worried.

It's true, he tells ABC News, that only 5 people have bought a $300 ad so far. But 31 others have donated smaller amounts. In all, 7,000 people have visited the site, and Benda has raised $3,206. "Any amount helps," he says. "$1 helps."

He says he's been surprised by how much feedback he's gotten -- 99 percent of it positive. "The 1 percent that's negative has been from people who call me lazy or say I'm just doing this because I don't want to pay back my loan. They call me a bum trying to catch a free ride, or an idiot for having gotten myself into this."

None of that is true, he says. He'd gladly pay off the loan by working, if he could find a job. But it's Michigan, and jobs are scarce. His family was hit hard by the recession: "We went from being safe to financially broke." His parents could not afford to pay for his college, so he took out student loans. Youngest of six siblings, he started a photography business when he was 16. "It covers my rent and food, but not enough to pay for college." He's editor of his college newspaper.

Asked if he ever considered getting a bigger hat (to accommodate more ads), he says, "A bigger hat?! I totally would get a bigger hat! I went into this thing thinking, who in their right mind would help a kid like me? If I sell more ads than are on the hat, I'll donate the money to other students in the same situation as me."

At graduation, won't he have to tip his head down so the audience can see the ads? No, he won't: "We graduate on the ground floor of an arena, so everybody in the audience is looking down on us." That $30,000 flattop is going to stand out like the USS Nimitz.

His plans for after he graduates? "I want to be the next Richard Branson. I want to have a startup that sells for $100,000,000. One day I want to pay someone with an actual bar of gold. I want to publish my children's book for my nephew, who is being born today, so he can read it in two years. I want to sit on a presidential cabinet for small businesses. And when I retire, I want to own a distillery making high quality whiskey working with American farmers."

The book, titled "Where the Color Goes," tells the story of a little boy visiting his grandma. He finds a faded picture of her and of his grandpa, who died before the little boy could ever meet him. He asks grandma why things fade, and where the color goes. Close your eyes, she says, and he sees the colors behind his eyelids. "Focus hard," she tells him, "and you'll see where the color goes." He drifts off to sleep, where he dreams of being with his grandpa.

Says the graduate-to-be, "Faded doesn't mean gone. It just goes where the color goes."

2.

Ladies' Thighs

In Tokyo in 2013, the WIT advertising agency recognized it had a problem: So saturated is the city with billboards, neon signs, huge TV screens and other visual attractions that catching people's attention is almost impossible. The agency's solution: advertising on young women's thighs, according to The Daily Mail.

"It's an absolutely perfect place to put an advertisement, as it's what guys are eager to look at and girls are OK to expose," the Mail quoted WIT's then-CEO as saying.

The images are temporary tattoos showing a client's logo or product.

As of July of last year, more than 3,000 young women had signed up, according to the paper. One of them told the Mail, "I wouldn't do this if they put it on my belly or other places I'm embarrassed to expose; but if it's on my chubby things, then what's the problem?"

Women participants, according to the Mail, are encouraged to wear short skirts and high socks in order to draw attention to the ads.

3.

Billy Gibby: "Skinvertising"

As reported by ABC News in 2012, Billy Gibby, a hard-working mail room clerk in Alaska, fell on hard times and worried he might not be able to keep a roof over the heads of his five children. His solution: skinvertising.

"I didn't want to see my kids on the street. That would have broke my heart," he told ABC's Nick Watt.

Watch: 39 Tattoos Turn Man Into 'Human Billboard'

So, Gibby, dubbed "The Human Billboard," began accepting advertisements on his face -- eventually 22 tattoos in all -- for which he was paid as little as $800 each.

Gibby told Watt he regretted getting some of them, for example, the word "porn" tattooed on his cheek.

Read More: Realty Firm Offers Raises for Company Tattoo

4.

Bald, Bold

Air New Zealand experimented with a 2009 advertising campaign that paid participants to shave their heads and display, on the back of their heads, a message written in henna, according to The New York Times.

The message said: "Need a Change? Head Down to New Zealand. www.airnewzealand.com."

A director of marketing for Air New Zealand was quoted by the Times as saying that about half of the 30 participants were New Zealand expats living in the United States. Being already familiar with New Zealand made them, said the Times, ideal brand ambassadors: "When co-workers or strangers behind them in the grocery store line asked about New Zealand, they could speak enthusiastically right off the top of their heads, so to speak."

Read More: Fitness Chain Offers Reimbursements for Tattoos of Gym's Logo

Participants, according to the Times, received either $777 in cash or a round-trip ticket to New Zealand, worth, at the time, about $1,200.

5.

Baby Jake

By all accounts, Baby Jake was an uncommonly handsome child. "Just going out and about with Jake, he gets a lot of attention," Jake's mother, Traci Hogg, told ABC's Gigi Stone on News Now in July 2006, when Jake turned 15 months old.

So, Hogg decided to sell advertising on him.

"People started noticing his clothing, and they would ask me, 'Where did you get that? That outfit is so cute.' And it just got me thinking that he should be paid for this rather than advertising for free for these companies," Hogg explained.

A company, she explained, could put its name on Jake's onesie, for example, for $10,000 a month or $100,000 a year.

She said Jake had received offers, and that she was hoping he'd receive more. "I'd love for, like, Yahoo or Dell, too," she told ABC News.

Asked if she wasn't worried that people would think she was exploiting her child, she replied she was not: All the money would be held for Jake unspent, to be used by only him, when he became an adult. "And you know, we [all] do it every day: We take our kids out in this cute baby Gap clothing and Nikes for kids. So, why not have a cute, adorable baby that's getting attention everywhere and get paid for it?"

6.

Andrew Fischer

The modern era of body advertising dates from 2001, say tattoo historians, when boxer Bernard Hopkins was paid by online gambling site Golden Palace to fight wearing a temporary tattoo of Golden Palace's web address.

The nascent trend, though, got a tremendous boost in 2005 when Andrew Fischer, then a website designer from Omaha, Neb., auctioned off his forehead on eBay as a site for temporary tattoo advertisements, as reported by The New York Times.

According to the Times, he became a sought-after guest on "Good Morning America" and other TV shows after Green Pharmaceuticals' Snore-Stop won the eBay auction, by paying him close to $37,400 to advertise Snore-Stop on his head for one month.

Reached by telephone by the Times in 2009, Mr. Fischer said, "For 40 grand, I don't regret looking like an idiot for a month."

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