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.


  1. I find Turkle’s line a bit obtuse. One could easily speak of jobs in the same terms:

    This is shaping how the child comes to see what their lives are there for. It’s not their lives to fill with activities that correspond to their dreams and tastes. Their lives are there to make money. Once you say, ‘I’m getting a job,’ you’re saying I’m for rent.

    I’m actually fine with the idea if she’s fine with saying that. Jason Robards sings the point home particularly well in A Thousand Clowns (1965). But I don’t think she’s probably going that far and so the quote lacks conviction.

    I’m not sure how worrying the trend at increasingly public lives should be in itself. People have always chosen to promote a fabrication of their life (based more or less on the truth of things) to the public. The problem only becomes a problem when the presentation is harmful to either themselves, their family, their ideologies, their society, or their witness of faith.

    Certainly materialism and even more the consumerist mindset is a problem that bears decapitation, but I’m not sure that the increasing publicization of the individual (and family) is actually related to the commodification of the individual. To become a commodity, one has to be marketable by someone selling something (either overtly or more metaphorically, as in those selling ideologies—e.g., the Tea Party, the Religious Right, Planned Parenthood, etc.). Simply making yourself known does not have any necessary tie to commodification other than your own commodification of yourself in the selling of whatever persona you wish your social circle to buy into.

    Side note: have you read Gibson’s Pattern Recognition? The protagonist suffers an amusing allergy to branding and cuts the labels off everything she wears.

    The funny thing is that just glancing at my wardrobe, the large majority of my clothing (maybe 98%) doesn’t feature visible branding. I have a couple Havalina Rail Co. t-shirts and a Blogger hoodie (two brands I promoted for very particular reasons), but everything else, the tags are well out of sight. Maybe branding isn’t quite the problem concern groups pose it to be?

  2. @Seth: I agree with you in that I don’t think us making ourselves more public, i.e., marketing ourselves (and, by extension, our families) is inherently or intrinsically wrong. It’s ultimately about the reasons behind the publicization. I do have concerns that it feeds narcissism and selfishness. The prevalence and ease with which new technology allows us to share our lives makes it that much easier to indulge our sinful natures as it does to promote an increased sense of community.

    I suppose this concern comes from my somewhat dim view of human nature. I just know that there have been numerous occasions where I’ve scrapped a Facebook status or tweet about myself or my family because, to be honest, I wasn’t sure what my intentions were. Was it just a harmless update, or a chance to revel in something cute that my child had done? Or was it out of pride and a desire to puff myself up a little bit, or a desire to snarkily cut someone else down?

  3. Re: “I wasn’t sure what my intentions were.”

    Keeping our intentions internally clear is a goal to keep in mind and should be a governing factor in everything we do. I see the danger in bowing to narcissism and selfishness with all the self-publication tools out there. I just don’t see that they’re any different from how we interacted (in the sense of broadcasting the self) with the world before these tools became available.

    When I was chatting someone up at a get-together in 1994, the danger of allowing myself to express out of sinful motivation was identically present as when I selfcast on Facebook now. Nothing intrinsic has changed. The only difference now, perhaps, is the number of people who might bear witness to my folly.

    I think the only distinct difference in the morality of interaction may be in presence of internet anonymity, by which people may take on faceless personas and become something unhealthy.

  4. I had that same idea for similar business venture a few years ago! But then I wasn’t sure there was any brand I would like to be so closely linked to, and wasn’t really sure anyone would actually pay me to wear their brand anyway, so I didn’t look seriously into it. Maybe I should have…

    I talk about my kids on Facebook all the time, but lately have been thinking that maybe it isn’t fair on my kids. Thanks for the further food for thought.

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