Fan billboards an idea ahead of its time

In-your-face advertising just became on-your-face advertising.

In an era where corporate America has maxxed out on advertising space at sporting venues, which already are named after banks, airlines and beer makers, the next advertising vehicle might arrive at a stadium or arena near you: Fan branding.

On Friday, Dunkin' Donuts became the first U.S. company to tattoo its logo on the foreheads of people, and the first to bring them into a sporting arena. Ambassadors willing to agree to wear the company's logo on their heads for three hours around or inside the FleetCenter in Boston, for the first-round games of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, were paid at least minimum wage. Others were handed the tattoo and put it on for fun.

"I kind of like temporary tattoos and I definitely like donuts," said Brittany Ojala, an 18-year-old freshman from Boston University who was sporting the orange and pink logo on her head. "We're going to try to get on the Jumbotron."

For a company like Dunkin' Donuts, the decision to do this was a no-brainer.

"We want to prove that we're head and shoulders above the competition," said Ken Kimmel, vice president of marketing for Dunkin' Donuts, which already has its logo plastered all over the Dunkin' Donuts Center in Providence, R.I. "Having a chance to literally be on the head of the crowd was too good to pass up."

The promotion was dreamed up by Ben Sturner and Jeff Bennett at Bennett Global Marketing, a sports and entertainment marketing firm that also works with Manchester United.

"This is the first time it's being done on such a mass level and really coincides well with the type of fans that get excited for the tournament," said Bennett, president and CEO of the company.

In February, Cunning Stunts, a non-traditional advertising firm based in London, had a small group of students in four European cities walk around town doing traditional activities with a television channel's logo on their foreheads.

"Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Marlboro have their own clothing and students are paying in some form to wear it," said Jake Morris, project manager for the firm. "So they definitely like that we're paying them."

The students received about $19.50 to wear the tattoo for three hours a day and they were provided with disposable cameras to prove they were out on the town sporting the logo of CNX, a British action adventure channel geared toward men.

"It's an extension of the sandwich billboard man," CNX vice president Richard Kilgarriff said. "But it's easier to get in and out of doorways."

As part of the promotion, Dunkin' Donuts tattoos will be sported at 10 colleges throughout the tournament. Marketing representatives will hand out thousands of the temporary decals to students at schools including Michigan State, Florida and Illinois. Student ambassadors handing out tattoos must sign a contract promising they will keep the logo on their foreheads for three hours a day for five days. A Web site, http://www.dunkinmania.com, allows student to pick their favorite tattoo wearer from across the country.

"It's almost an extension of fan face painting," Kimmel said. "We're hoping to literally make an impression on the minds of young adults with this because it gets harder everyday to find a way to break through the clutter. This is probably one of the most innovative tools we've ever used to accomplish that goal."

Kimmel declined to say how much the company spent on the promotion, and said he doesn't know how the donut company's executives will gauge the campaign's effectiveness, but he's confidence it will make its mark.

"I'm not sure we'll be able to say it sold us 10,000 cups of coffee," Kimmel said. "But I know our brand will be top-of-mind with the people that see it."

Permanent corporate tattoos on NBA players became a hot topic of discussion two years ago when Rasheed Wallace's agent, Bill Strickland, entertained an offer from a candy company for his client. Wallace eventually said he wasn't comfortable with it and the NBA said it would not allow any player in the future to receive compensation for a corporate tattoo. Washington Wizards guard Larry Hughes has an And1 tattoo on his forearm, though he doesn't get paid for it.

Goldenpalace.com, an online casino, has garnered much attention from temporarily tattooing its Web site on the backs of boxers, but Strickland said that for the major sports leagues, companies might get a better value out of putting tattoos on fans.

"As a practical matter, a tattoo on a player is not the best value for a company because a player is moving so quickly and there is very little exposed body space," Strickland said. "That's why putting tattoos on fans makes a lot more sense. Plus, if they walked into an NBA arena with Pepsi and MCI logos on their heads when Coke and AT&T were league sponsors, there's no way the league could attempt control the fans."

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at darren.rovell@espn3.com