Marketing Our Families

If you’re feeling somewhat cynical, you could probably argue that — in this day and age of unceasing attempts by corporations to make their branding as ubiquitous as possible — we are all walking billboards. As such, it shouldn’t be all that surprising for people to try and make some money doing so. No doubt you’ve heard of individuals who have allowed themselves to be tattooed, permanently or otherwise, by corporations. And so enter the Billboard Family, a family that — you guessed it — has turned themselves into walking billboards.

The Martins, who call themselves the Billboard Family, offer to have their family wear a company’s T-shirt for an entire day, document the experience and share it with as many people as possible. They launched their business Jan. 1, charging $2 for the first day, and increasing the rate by $2 each subsequent day.

They hope to net $240,000 from their family business venture this year, with approximately $120,000 of that coming from selling individual days. There are also monthlong and yearlong partnerships and negotiations for a cable channel reality show.

I might find what the Martins are doing to be a little disturbing, given how much license we already give advertisers in our lives, but I can’t say that I think it’s wrong or immoral. Things get a little dicier when children are involved, though, because they may not have the necessary reasoning skills to understand exactly what they’re doing, or the implications of what they’re wearing and why. When accused of exploiting their children, the Martin parents respond thusly:

Carl says he and his wife originally planned to just wear the shirts themselves, but their young children begged to be part of the business. He responds to critics who say they are exploiting their children by pointing out that most children wear some sort of branded T-shirt. The only difference, he says, is that his children are paid to wear them.

In a sense, this is certainly true: everything we wear is branded in one way or another. But it sidesteps a very important point — i.e., body image — that Sherry Turkle, a professor at MIT, points out:

This is shaping how the child comes to see what their body is there for. It’s not their body to adorn with pieces of clothing that correspond to the colors they like or their own taste. Their body is there to make money. … Once you say, ‘I’m a billboard,’ you’re saying I’m for rent.

As I’ve mentioned before, I have a degree in advertising and I work for a marketing firm, so in one sense, the Martins’ business plan doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. In fact, one could argue that they’re actually pretty smart for attempting to make a buck in the process. But the Billboard Family represents a trend that goes beyond mere marketing: the increasing commodification and publicization of our personal lives, and this I find to be more interesting… and more troubling.

The Martins are hardly the first parents to commodify their family life. From the Duggars to Jon and Kate Plus 8, this is the moment of Broadcast Parents, those who parent in public view. To a far lesser degree, even those without commercial interest, allow this entry into family life. Funny baby videos have gone viral on YouTube. Parents post questions on Twitter, blog their parenting struggles and seek advice on Facebook. It’s created a culture in which children may be living in their own “Truman Show,” their lives unknowingly on display.

Thanks to Twitter, Facebook, and other social media, we are increasingly comfortable, for better or worse, with exposing our lives for everyone else to see, be they family members, co-workers, “friends” and “followers”, or complete strangers. So it shouldn’t really surprise us to see a family put themselves on display in this way — many families already put themselves on display via Facebook, blogs, etc.

What will be especially interesting is how this willful exposure will affect future generations, if at all. I may not dress up and photograph my children in specially branded clothing for money, but I have posted blog entries, uploaded photos and videos, and discussed various facets of their lives without their knowledge or comprehension, and have done so with people that may be my friends and acquaintances, but that my children will never really know. If and when they discover this, will they feel threatened, violated, and used? Or will they simply shrug it off because by the time they’re aware of it, they will have already become willing contributors to their own commodification?

Furthermore, how does one communicate the concept of boundaries and borders to children in a world where we are under increasing pressure to do away with boundaries and more of our private lives (even if only to a circle of social media “friends”)? As a parent, it is imperative that I teach my children what is proper, and part of doing that is enforcing boundaries as to what is proper and prudent, and when. But with social media tools making it so easy to move between public and private spheres, and indeed, blur the lines between the two — for example, tweeting about the office while on vacation, or posting company party photos on your Facebook page — this becomes especially problematic.

And even worse, you probably won’t get paid for doing so, either.

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