Special Session Summary Branding the Body: Skin and Consumer Communication


Jonathan E. Schroeder (2003) ,"Special Session Summary Branding the Body: Skin and Consumer Communication", in E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, eds. Darach Turley and Stephen Brown, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 23-28.

European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6, 2003      Pages 23-28



Jonathan E. Schroeder, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden

This session brought together four papers focused on the role of skin in consumer communication. Branding, of course, derived from the practice of marking skin to claim ownership. We employ the branding construct in several waysBas communication, as commodification, and as inscription. Two papers look at tattooing, one studies the fetish culture, and the last investigates skin in contemporary marketing communication. Together, they advance the field of consumer research by taking consumer bodies and skin rituals seriously from diverse perspectives. Furthermore, the authors bring a rich tradition of interpretive research to bear on embodiment, including participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and philosophical analysis.

We think that skin is a novel, productive frame for consumer researchBespecially research on consumer identityByet few studies have made skin a central focus. Our focus is on consumer communication, that is, how does skin serve consumers and marketers as signals of desire, markers of difference, and exemplars of brands? How does skin represent marketing concepts and consumer issues? How do consumers use their bodies within consumer culture? How does the market structure human bodies? What can we learn from the margins of body practice that might inform more mainstream consumption? These and other questions animate the research collected here in a vivid tour through contemporary body practices, presenting some fascinating glimpses into contemporary consumer communication through the skin.



Maurice Patterson, University of Limerick, Ireland

Richard Elliott, University of Warwick & University of Oxford, UK

From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think there is only one practical consequence: we have to create ourselves as a work of art. (Foucault 1997, p. 262)

Turner (1992) has coined the term 'somatic society’ to signify the growing importance of embodiment as a locus for investigation in many disciplines, an importance driven by contemporary discourses particularly within the feminist movement and bio-politics (Shilling 1993; Williams and Bendelow 1998). After a slow start, consumer researchers have also taken up the notion of embodiment (Joy and Venkatesh 1994; Patterson and Elliott 2002; Thompson and Hirschman 1995), as a core issue in the study of consumption. The relative neglect of embodiment within consumer research prior to this owes much to the limited scrutiny of consumption activities beyond purchase, the dominance of the machine metaphor within consumer research and the Cartesian dualism on which it depends. In this way, the study of consumption activities has been centred on the consuming mind and divorced from corporeality.

The legacy of Cartesianism has been the equation of humanity with the rational mind (Burkitt 1999). The body, on the other hand, is nothing more than an automaton, a machine acting as a container for the non-spatial mind. The natural body is seen as corrupt and flawed, requiring the liberatory intervention of rationality acting through science and technology (Hirschman 1990; Slater 1997). These dualisms have been further mapped onto gender with men being associated with the positive attributes of reason, rationality, culture and production, while women are tied to embodiment, nature, emotionality and consumption (Williams and Bendelow 1998): "images of the dangerous, appetitive female body, ruled precariously by her emotions, stand in contrast to the masterful, masculine will, the locus of social power, rationality and self-control" (Davis, 1997, p. 5).

The association of femininity with embodiment has had the effect of making women extremely susceptible to the normalization of bodily ideals. Here, the institutions of consumer culture play a central role (Thompson and Hirschman 1995); promoting images of the body beautiful (Sturrock and Pioch 1998), instructing women in self-representation (Finkelstein 1997), and encouraging them to take responsibility for the way they look (Featherstone 1991). Furthermore, within particular social fields, bodily attributes, such as aesthetic qualities, are ascribed value and function as embodied capital (Crossley 2001). This embodied capital may, in turn, be converted to economic, cultural and social capital. The closer those bodies approximate a social field’s normalized ideals (Featherstone 1991) the more value they are seen to possess. In this way, women are persuaded to devote their energies to improving their bodies, passing as normal (Gilman 1999) and thereby maximizing their embodied capital (Wernick 1987). However, such activities serve to question the degree of agency exhibited by women in the face of a pervasive beauty culture (Grogan 1999).

Utilizing the results of phenomenological interviews, this paper both illuminates and complicates these issues by addressing the relationship between heavily tattooed women and beauty culture. It can be argued that tattoos enable women to re-appropriate their bodies, so often the target of objectification, and use them as the basis of subjectivity and agency (Waterhouse 1993). "Unlike plastic surgery and diets that speak, in simple and complex ways, about desires for normalcy, beauty, and control, tattoosare not 'normal’," (Braunberger 2000, p. 2).

Borrowing from Johnston (1996), the paper identifies how te 'body work’ (Featherstone 1991) engaged in by heavily tattooed women sees them inhabit a space that is both within and beyond the confines of normal beauty culture. To this end, tattooed female bodies are positioned as simultaneously transgressive, docile and abject. They are transgressive in that they seek to establish alternative notions of what is aesthetically pleasing and what is beautiful. "Women are working to erase the oppressive marks of a patriarchal society and to replace them with marks of their own choosing which contest patriarchal power" (De Mello 1995, p. 74, cited in Goulding and Follett 2002). However, breaking free of the smothering inscriptions of patriarchy is a difficult exercise, and many tattooed women feel the need to balance their tattoos by creating looks that otherwise adhere to normalized ideals of feminine beauty. These women are caught in the contradiction identified by Jagger (2000) whereby, at the moment of self-production they are also self-monitoring and docile. Finally, tattooed female bodies may also be characterized as monstrous and abject. They are at once abhorrent and fascinating, attracting the gaze and challenging it. They are liminal, existing on the border but not respecting it (Johnston 1996), questioning the distinction between beauty and repulsiveness.




Braunberger, Christine (2000), "Revolting Bodies: The Monster Beauty of Tattooed Women", NWSA Journal, 12(2), 1-23.

Burkitt, Ian (1999), Bodies of Thought: Embodiment, Identity & Modernity, London: Sage.

Crossley, Nick (2001), The Social Body: Habit, Identity and Desire, London: Sage.

Davis, Kathy (1997), "Embody-ing Theory: Beyond Modernist and Postmodernist Readings of the Body", in Kathy Davis (ed.) Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body, London: Sage, 1-26.

DeMello, Margo (1995), "The Carnivalesque Body: Women and Tattoos", in Don Ed Hardy (ed.) Pierced Hearts and True Love, Honolulu, HI: Hardy Marks Publications, 73-82.

Featherstone, Michael (1991), "The Body in Consumer Culture", in Michael Featherstone, Michael Hepworth and Bryan S. Turner (eds.) The Body: Social Process and Cultural Theory, London: Sage, 170-196.

Finkelstein, Joanne (1997), "Chic Outrage and Body Politics", in Kathy Davis (ed.) Embodied Practices: Feminist Perspectives on the Body, London: Sage, 150-167.

Foucault, Michel (1997), Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, trans. R. Hurley, London: Allen Lane.

Gilman, Sander L. (1999), Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Goulding, Christina and John Follett (2002), "Sub-Cultures, Women and Tattoos: An Exploratory Study", in Pauline Maclaran and Elisabeth Tissier-Desbordes (eds.) Proceedings of the 6th ACR Conference on Gender Marketing and Consumer Behavior, Dublin, June, 37-53.

Grogan, Sarah (1999), Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children, London: Routledge.

Hirschman, Elizabeth C. (1990), "Secular Immortality and the American Ideology of Affluence", Journal of Consumer Research, 17(June), 31-42.

Jagger, Elizabeth (2000), "Consumer Bodies", in Philip Hancock et al. (eds.) The Body, Culture and Society, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Johnston, Lynda (1996), "Flexing Femininity: Female Body-Builders Refiguring the Body", Gender, Place and Culture, 3(3), 327-340.

Joy, Annamma and Alladi Venkatesh (1994), "Postmodernism, Feminism, and the Body: The Visible and the Invisible in Consumer Research," International Journal of Research in Marketing, 11, 333-357.

Patterson, Maurice and Richard Elliott (2002), "Negotiating Masculinities: Advertising and the Inversion of the Male Gaze", Consumption, Markets & Culture, 5(3), 231-246.

Shilling, Chris (1993), The Body and Social Theory, London: Sage.

Slater, Don (1997), Consumer Culture and Modernity, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Sturrock, Fiona and Elke Pioch (1998), "Making Himself Attractive: The Growing Consumption of Grooming Products", Marketing Intelligence and Planning, 16(5), 337-343.

Thompson, Craig J. and Elizabeth Hirschman (1995), "Understanding the Socialized Body: A Poststructuralist Analysis of Consumers’ Self-Conceptions, Body Images and Self-Care Practices", Journal of Consumer Research, 22(September), 139-153.

Waterhouse, Ruth (1993), "The Inverted Gaze", in Sue Scott and David Morgan (eds.) Body Matters: Essays on the Sociology of the Body, London: The Falmer Press, 105-121.

Wernick, Andrew (1987), "From Voyeur to Narcissist: Imaging Men in Contemporary Advertising", in Michael Kaufman (ed.) Beyond Patriarchy: Essays by Men on Pleasure, Power and Change, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 277-297.

Williams, Simon J. and Gillian Bendelow (1998), The Lived Body: Sociological Themes, Embodied Issues, London: Routledge.



Dannie Kjeldgaard, SDUBOdense University, Denmark

Anders Bengtsson, SDUBOdense University, Denmark

In this presentation, we discuss meanings of acts and imagery of tattoo consumption. In the late modern age it has been claimed that individual identities have become reflexive articulations of imagined biographies (Giddens 1991). As such, identities have become fluid in that there is a constant rearticulation taking place. Social theorist Zygmunt Bauman (2001) goes as far as claiming that the identity strategy of today is less about committing oneself to one identity than it is about keeping possibilities for identity change open. It is somewhat paradoxical that while body expression on the one hand is part of a reflexive identity negotiation, it is on the other hand characterized by a higher degree of permanence and hence something that closes off the possibilities for identity change. It has been suggested, however, that body expressions are attempts to anchor self identity and thus obtain some stability in contemporary consumer culture (Sweetman 2000).

The meanings that are associated with tattooing have changed over the past century (DeMello 2000). From being heavily associated with sailors and later with biker culture, tattoo consumption has developed into a more mainstream phenomenon. People who get tattoos these days are not necessarily doing so to symbolize affiliation with a certain subculture. DeMello (2000) argues that the meanings associated with tattoos can be found in social changes as seen in the New Age, women’s spirituality, men’s, and ecology movements, that occurred as tattooing became mainstream culture. In her ethnographic study of tattoo consumption, Velliquette (2000) concludes that the reason why consumers choose to become tattooed is a result of specific events in the personal life history and/or social relations. This conclusion lends support to the idea proposed by Vale and Juno (1989, p. 5), that a tattoo reflects the bearer’s history and mythology and is therefore more than just a painting on the skin.

In our study of consumers’ stories of actual tattoo consumption in Denmark, four practices emerged. To some informants, the decision of having a tattoo were closely linked to their personal biography. The tattoos were legitimized in terms of significant events in their personal history and were thought of as ways of carrying the experience or event further on in life. This kind of practice, where the body is physically and permanently marked, signifies a life-event and thus a before and after in the individual biography. This kind of practice can be thought of as an individualized 'rites de passage’. In the perspective of postmodernity, in which rituals and rigidity of life-stages become more fluid and the general obligation of the individual to construct his/her identity and biography becomes more prominent, this kind of rite of passage come to be a way of individually drawing symbolic boundaries of the self, in a process previously undertaken by collective, institutionalized rituals and practices (Giddens 1991; Bauman 2001).

Another practice relate to the imageries that are chosen as tattoo motifs. For some informants, there were clear and obvious relations between signifier and signified. For instance, one informant had a combination of the logotype of the university he was enrolled in and the arms of the military regiment in which he is an officer of the reserve. To him these two institutions and the life stages associated with them were important and something he wished to carry with him in the future. To another informant, there was no clear link between the personal biography and the tattoo imagery chosen. One informant had been on a world tour with a gymnastics team and had gotten her tattoo while being in Australia. The tattoo was discursively constructed by her to serve as a memory of the world tour; the image was a half-moon which she chose purely for aesthetical / fashion reasons. One informant who had a tattoo of the death metal band Sepultura’s logo on his calf related primarily to this band because of the preference for the music style rather than a relation to any larger community or life-stage experience. Nevertheless, there was a clear link between signifier and signified. Another informant had had a tattoo of a lizard and a grasshopper on his right upper arm. To him it was pure aesthetics, the tattoo image not serving any particularBor at least articulateBsymbolic meaning to him other than as adornment. Here the relationship between signifier and signified becomes totally arbitrary since the informant denies any meaningBboth identity-wise or symbol-wiseBin terms of the symbol itself as well as the actual practice.

The practices were in several cases linked to social relations, as is also noted by Velliquette (2000). However, unlike Velliquette we do not interpret the tattoo practices under the theoretical umbrella of subcultural consumption practices (see e.g., Hall and Jefferson 1976; Hebdige 1979) but rather as postmodern exemplars of neotribal practices (Bennett 1999; Maffesoli 1996). Some of the practices related to social relations (that were not related to tattoos per se) clearly demarcated in time and space and thus more ephemeral than traditional subcultural practices would imply. This does not mean that there does not exist subcultural practices that are bound up on tattooing and body modification more generally, but that this was not the case for our informants. There were references to a sense of belonging with other people with tattoos among some informants. However, these were accounted for as very fleeting social relations (e.g. a comment of commendation, a gaze of recognition) and thus indicate a neotribal form of consumption practice rather than a subcultural one, even when tattoos themselves are facilitators of the social relation. This brings to a point of criticism of previous work on tattoo consumption in consumer research, namely that the very notion of tattooing being a mass phenomenon inhibits it from being a subcultural practice per se. Tattooing may, for some, be part of a subcultural identity, but for most consumers, tattoo consumption is better understood as either neotribal or reflexive individualistic forms of expression.


Bauman, Zygmunt (2001), The Individualized Society, Cambridge: Polity.

Bennett, Andy (1999), "Subcultures or Neotribes? Rethinking the Relationship Between Youth, Style and Musical Taste," Sociology, 33 (3), 599-617.

DeMello, Margo (2000), Bodies of Inscription: A Cultural History of the Modern Tattoo Community, London: Duke University Press.

Giddens, Anthony (1991), Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Hall, Stuart and Tony Jefferson (1976), Resistance Through Rituals, London: Hutchinson.

Hebdige, Dick (1979), Subculture: The Meaning of Style, New York: Methuen.

Maffesoli, Michel (1996), Time of the Tribes. The Decline of Individualism in Mass Society, London: Sage.

Sweetman, Paul (2000), "Anchoring the (Postmodern) Self? Body Modification, Fashion and Identity" in Body Modification, ed. Mike Featherstone, London: Sage, 51-76.

Vale, V. and Andrea Juno (1989), Modern Primitives: An Investigation of Contemporary Adornment and Ritual, San Francisco, CA: Re/Search Publications.

Velliquette, Anne M. (2000) "Modern Primitives: The Role of Product Symbolism in Lifestyle Cultures and Identity" Ph.D. dissertation, University of Arkansas.



Jonathan E. Schroeder, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden

Janet Borgerson, Stockholm University, Sweden

In many recent advertising images, human skin, photography, and branding combine to produce striking, sexually tinged images designed to promote a basic vision of the good life. This paper presents an in depth analysis of skin in contemporary advertising via an interdisciplinary reading that draws from visual studies, consumer behavior, and critical race theory. The discussion opens up broader considerations of skin’s role in branding and consumer culture, and closes by reflecting on the fetish as a conceptual tool to understand visual rhetoric in contemporary advertising.

We argue that skinBincluding representations of skin within marketing communicationsBis contextualized within a map of the human body, that is, skin comes from a particular place on the bodyBsome more eroticized than others. For example, skin of the abdominal region is generally more sensitive, less open to other’s touch, than skin of the arm or hand (cf., Hall 1966). Furthermore, skin refers to cultural codes of gender, sexuality, racial identity, health, and age. Skin is almost always referred to in cosmetic brand marketing, for products such as make-up, moisturizer, and anti-aging remedies, for example. Skin is also the center of many plastic surgery pitches to make consumers look younger. Recent marketing images, particularly Benetton’s highly noticeable and notorious campaigns (Borgerson and Schroeder 2002), have invoked ethnic and racial identity through the use of models with varying racial appearance, but lately, skin itselfBtone, color, sheen, complexionB has become a focus of ad campaigns for brands in several product categories, including watches, mobile telephones, and jewelry. These ads abstract and decontexualitze human skin, avoiding reference to facial features, intellectual identity, and sometimes, gender identity. Furthermore, many ads juxtapose racially coded skin tones such as black and white in a way that emphasizes racial identity.

We move away from emergent models of relationships between consumers and ads in order to discuss how identities are constructed within ads themselves, much like brands have been conceptualized as having personality, character, or identity, in a process of 'recombinant culture’ (Hirschman and Thompson 1997). Our contribution is to show how critical race theory, in conjunction with social attribution processes, illuminates the relationship between marketing communication and identity within the context of consumer culture. Critical race theorists have written extensively on the relation between representation and ontological status (see Borgerson and Schroeder 2002, for a review; Gordon, 1999; van Leeuwen 2000; Walker, 1998). These studies theorize the sort of beings that are capable of ethical action and responsibility and are linked by a concern with how visual markers such as skin color and gendered gesturesCwhich are mapped in and onto the bodyCrepresent or determine the status of beings, particularly in the context of racism and sexism.

As a result of dichotomous thinking in patriarchal, racialized cultures, being has traditionally been divided into two parts. This binary or dialectic mode has given rise to well recognized, hierarchically ordered dualisms: self/other, white/black, heaven/earth, civilized/primitive, rational/irrational, finite/infinite in a "logic of colonialism" (Plumwood, 1993). Ontologically dualistic hierarchies carry semiotic relevance and express the interrelations of subordinated elements. For example, Gordon’s semiotic reading locates blackness at the subordinated pole in the hierarchical black/white dualism that operates as a sign of value within what he calls an antiblack world (Gordon, 1995).

The most basic dualism, self/not self, paves the way for an understanding of the self that is set against the not-self. The self, as subject, defines the not-self as other. Knowledge of the self develops through a self-versus-other epistemology of difference (e.g., Desmond, McDonagh, and O’Donohoe 2000; Miller 1994). This ontological othering has perpetuated and reinforced the dualistic hierarchical orderings that historically have favored the male, the white, and the rational. In such a context, those associated with the privileged elements stand in the position to claim knowledge of all that is important to know about those associated with the subordinated elements. That is, the dualistic relation engages with the potential for epistemic closure (Borgerson 2001). We contend that representations, including marketing images, hold the potential for epistemic closure by repeatedly associating consumer identities with particular ontological status. A worldview informed by epistemic closure essentializes being and tends toward creation of a recognizable "authentic" identity while knowing next to nothing "about the typical Other beyond her or his typicality" (Gordon, 1997, p. 81).

Black, of course, is a racial category; blackness in semiotic terms connotes exoticized identity and a sexualized fascination with the other, via what has been called "the epidermal schema" (Fanon 1967; Gordon 1995). Blackness contributes to fetishization processes in part due to black skin’s exoticization by the Western world. Moreover, photographic techniques such as close cropping, lighting, and depth of field visually fetishize objects via isolation and decontextualization. Thus, advertising photography contributes to the fetishization of goods by reifying and eroticizing consumer products, and in this case, human skin. Moreover, black is often ontologically linked to nature, white to culture. Blackness, then, has ontological status:

blackness and whiteness take on certain meanings that apply to certain groups of people in such a way that makes it difficult not to think of those people without certain affectivity charged associations. Their blackness and their whiteness become regarded, by people who take their associations too seriously, as their essential featuresCas, in fact, material features of their being. (Gordon, 1995, p. 95).

Thus, blackness refers to racial identity in a semiotically charged way. Indeed, skin color has been called "the most visible of the fetishes" (Bhabha, 1983). However, most consumer research that invokes race has not employed critical race theory, and is often marked by a limited view of blackness as "authentic 'hood culture" (e.g., Holt and Crockett 2002)Ban important, but by no means exhaustive code of blackness. In this paper, we introduce concepts from an ontologically based critical race theory to illuminate how skin functions as a raced (and gendered) consumer code, and present several illustrative examples culled from the world of contemporary marketing communications.


Bhabha, Homi (1983), "The Other Question: The Stereotype and Colonial Discourse," Screen, 24 (4), 18-36.

Borgerson, Janet L. (2001), "Feminist Ethical Ontology: Contesting 'the Bare Givenness of Intersubjectivity’", Feminist Theory, 2 (2), 173-187.

Borgerson, Janet L. and Jonathan E. Schroeder (2002), "Ethical Issues of Global Marketing: Avoiding Bad Faith in Visual Representation," European Journal of Marketing. 36 (5/6), 570-594.

Desmond, John, Pierre McDonagh and Stephanie O’Donohoe (2000), "Counter-Culture and Consumer Society," Consumption Markets and Culture, 4 (3), 241-279.

Fanon, Frantz (1967), Black Skin, White Masks, trans. C. L. Markmann, New York: Grove Press.

Gordon, Lewis (1995), Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism, Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

Gordon, Lewis (1997), Her Majesty’s Other Children: Sketches of Racism from a Neocolonial Age, Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Gordon, Lewis (1999) "Philosophy of Existence", in Edinburgh Encyclopedia of Continental Philosophy, ed. Simon Glendenning, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 101-181.

Hall, Edward T. (1966), The Hidden Dimension, New York: Doubleday.

Hirschman, Elizabeth and Craig J. Thompson (1997), "Why Media Matter: Advertising and Consumers in Contemporary Communication," Journal of Advertising, 26 (1), 43-60.

Holt, Douglas B. and David Crockett (2002), "Branding with Blackness: How Bud and Mountain Dew Commodify 'Urban Culture’," paper presented at the Association for Consumer Research conference, Atlanta.

Miller, Daniel (1994), Modernity, An Ethnographic Approach: Dualism and Mass Consumption in Trinidad, Oxford: Berg.

Plumwood, Val (1993), Feminism and the Mastery of Nature, London: Routledge.

van Leeuwen, Theo (2000), "Visual Racism," in The Semiotics of Racism, eds. Martin Reisigl and Ruth Wodak Vienna: Passagen Verlag, 333-350.

Walker, Margaret Urban (1998), Moral Understandings: Feminist Studies in Ethics, New York: Routledge.



Roy Langer, Roskilde University, Denmark

This study presents research on one of the most radical and popular subcultures in the Western hemisphere, the fetish culture. Originally, fetishism referred to the idolized worship of transcendental and divine magic represented by Gods, ghosts, forces of nature or other fantasy constructs. From this perspective, a fetish can be viewed as a cultural object (e.g. visual symbols, certain materials) affecting its’ worshippers, because they believe in an occult and magic energy of this object. By the end of the 19th century Kraft-Elbing and Freud re-defined the term. In the context of their psychoanalytical thinking, fetishism now referred to a sexual perversion and disease. Here, a fetish does not represent positive, magic energy and is almost exclusively related to males’ sexual desires. Taking departure in Lacan’s theories, in the 1970s feminist scholars applied the term in their writings. Again, fetishism was exclusively ascribed to males and seen as one of males’ instruments in order to oppress and surpass women. However, fetishism here again was seen as opposed to a realist perspective and re-acknowledged the opposition between realism and fantasy. Since the 1980s one more connotation was constructed due to the rising wave of fetish fashion, parties, clubs etc., which constituted an international fetish (sub-)culture. Emerging from the Punk- and Goth-subculture, fetish culture has during the 1990s been closely affiliated to the raves of the techno-culture (cf., de Kerckhove 1995), the body art- and the modern primitivism movement. As fetishism often (but not always) includes the expressive consumption of body modifications (such as tattooing, piercing, implants and so forth) and a sexual orientation towards 'bdsm’ (bondage, domination, and sado-masochism), anthropological and cultural research (e.g. Lees and Shape 1992; Pitts 1998; Featherstone 2000) has offered relevant insights into closely related cultural practices.

There have been few published studies within consumer behavior research that focus on the fetish culture (cf., O’Donnell 1999; Schroeder 1998). This paper offers seeks to illuminate the Danish and international fetish culture. Founded in the early 1980s in London, this subculture has emerged to one of the most provocative and interesting consumptions scenes for youngerBand increasingly also more adultBgenerations. It has given birth to a still growing industry of fetish fashion brands (e.g., Demask, SKIN TWO, Blackstyle), an industry of print magazines and videos (e.g., SKIN TWO, MARQUIS), event-making (e.g. Rubber Ball, Europerve, Wasteland), clubs (e.g., Torture Garden, Atomage), and a more and more ramified network of commercial, individual laymen and organizational websites on the Internet (e.g., http://ukfetish.info, www.manifestfetishclub.com, www.london-fetishscene.com). Members of this subculture consume print material, videos and DVDs, products from the music industry, (regular and Internet) sites and services as well as a large variety of fetish fashion products and attributes (from gas masks to rubber clothing, from shoes to corsets, etc.). Finally, the fetish culture also has its own stars: performance artists, body artists, photographers (e.g., Dita, Fakir Musafar, Midori).

As Schouten and McAlexander (1995) in their study of Harley Davidson enthusiasts state, subcultures of consumption provide opportunities for marketers to engage in symbiotic relationships by serving consumers’ needs, by assisting in the socialization of new members and by facilitating communications within the subculture. In the fetish culture, such symbiotic relationship indeed exists. The London based commercial fetish magazine SKIN TWO was one of the first organizers of fetish parties and main drivers of this culture. It organizes the annual Rubber Ball, one of the most famous and appraised fetish parties. As the name SKIN TWO indicates, one of the main elements of the fetish culture is the consumption of artefacts made of rubber, PVC and latex. Many fetishists regard and feel clothing made of these materials as a second skin (see Schroeder and Borgerson, 2003).

The analysis is based on empirical data from participant observation in clubs and at fetish parties, textual analysis of e-zines, magazines, flyers and WebPages and interviews with fetishists. A multiple interpretation perspective drawing on the so-called "pornofication" of society, on psychological theories about consumption and self-identity, and on Russian literary theorist Michail Bakhtin’s seminal writings (1984) about masks, the vulgarity of the grotesque body and the carnivalesque (see Kates 2000). From this perspective, (un-)covering the skin in fetish culture is an expression of freedom from official norms and values, "a special type of communication impossible in everyday life", with "special forms of marketplace speech and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who came in contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at other times" (Bakhtin 1984, p. 10). Covering the body with SKIN TWO has then to be interpreted as a way of leaving the limitations of the natural skin. Masking the face with DEMASK is then a method to take off the masks, we all have to wear in order to follow social and cultural norms and expectations.


Bakhtin, Michail (1984), Rabelais and his World, Bloomington: Midland-Indiana University Press.

de Kerckhove, Derrick (1995), The Skin of Culture: Investigating in the New Electronic Reality, Toronto: Sommerville House.

Featherstone, Mike (ed.) (2000), Body Modification, Nottingham: TCS Book Series.

Kates, Steven M. (2000), "Sex and the City: Production and Consumption of the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras," in Proceedings of the 5th Conference on Gender, Marketing, and Consumer Behavior, eds. Jonathan Schroeder and Cele Otnes, Provo: Association for Consumer Research, 33-34.

Lees, Frances E. Mascia and Patricia Shape (eds.) (1992), Tattoo, Torture, Mutilation and Adornment. The Denaturalization of the Body in Culture and Text, New York: State University of New York Press.

O’Donnell, Kathleen A. (1999), "Good Girls Gone Bad: The Consumption of Fetish Fashion and the Sexual Empowerment of Women," in Advances in Consumer Research, vol. 26, eds., Linda Scott and Eric Arnould, Provo, UT: Association for Consumer Research, 184-189.

Pitts, Victoria L. (1998), "’Reclaiming’ the Female Body: Embodied Identity Work, Resistance and the Grotesque," Body & Society, 4 (September), 67-84.

Schouten, John W. (1991), "Selves in Transition: Symbolic Consumption in Personal Rites of Passage and Identity Reconstruction," Journal of Consumer Research, 17 (March), 412-425.

Schouten, John W. and James H. McAlexander (1995), "Subcultures of Consumption: An Ethnography of the New Bikers," Journal of Consumer Research, 22 (June), 46-61.

Schroeder, Jonathan E. (1998), "Consuming Sexuality: A Case Study in Identity Marketing," in Gender, Marketing and Consumer Behavior, eds., Eileen Fischer and Daniel Wardlow, San Francisco: San Francisco State University, 27-40.

Schroeder, Jonathan E. and Janet L. Borgerson (2003), "Dark Desires: Fetishism, Representation, and Ontology in Contemporary Advertising, in Sex in Advertising: Multidisciplinary Perspectives on the Erotic Appeal, eds. Tom Reichert and Jacqueline Lambiase Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 65-89.



Jonathan E. Schroeder, Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden


E - European Advances in Consumer Research Volume 6 | 2003

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