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The desperate book industry and 'tatvertising' are a perfect, tragic match

Columbia Pictures

Hachette Australia has announced an open casting call for a woman who is willing to "donate" her back for a large, permanent tattoo that will be used to promote the fourth book in Stieg Larsson's wildly successful Millennium Series (it's being called, explicitly, "tatvertising"). The series is best known for its first volume, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, which was adapted for film by Danish director Niels Arden Oplev in 2009 and again by thriller magnate David Fincher in 2011 — hence the obvious need to promote with an actual dragon tattoo on a real person.

In the early aughts, websites with tons of cash but little brand recognition anted up for the choice advertising real estate on human beings' faces. If you skim through the pictures for even a second it's obvious how predatory the practice is towards the poor and the desperate — including one woman who had GoldenPalace.com tattooed on her forehead in exchange for $10,000 that she needed to finance her son's education. This was no small thing — a company called TatAd.com even sprung up to help brands coordinate with flesh donors — but the practice either petered out or stopped warranting attention after five years or so.

girl in the spiders web

We'd probably like to think that this kind of next-level tackiness is soundly in the past, along with the other things we shucked off at the turn of the decade — namely Spencer Pratt and Crocs. But necessity is the mother of ludicrousness, and for past-their-prime industries like book publishing, where standard advertising, word of mouth, and even the media are generally disinterested, creative marketing is the one and only imperative.

Necessity is the mother of ludicrousness

The publishing industry tends to struggle with this — as evidenced by a legacy of horrific, offensive rebranding of classic novels by womenmisguided attempts to make use of social media, and dumb publicity stunts that do nothing to help the reputation of even dumber books. But the stakes have never been quite this high.

Hachette wants to spend eight hours (spread across two days of sessions) tattooing their volunteer with, admittedly, what is probably a pretty cool dragon tattoo, and then use her back as the central image of its outdoor ads. A Hachette rep told the Sydney Morning Herald (with apparent sincerity) that the lucky woman will be able to consider herself "the back of the campaign." As in, her back will more or less become the property of Hachette Australia for three months worth of publicity. The tattoo will be 8 inches by 12 inches.

girl w/ dragon tattoo

But why the fuck does it need to be a real tattoo? When reached for comment, a representative from Razor & JOY, the advertising agency in charge of the campaign, told me, "The character of Lisbeth doesn't do things in half measures — and so we wanted our marketing to capture this passion." The representative also explained that the compensation for the woman who is cast would be something... less than monetary: "This campaign is an opportunity to give a truly passionate fan a free tattoo that is unique to a strong literary character." And a new type of degrading, unpaid labor in the publishing industry was born.

Is literature usually this literal?

Perhaps Hachette thinks it can differentiate itself from cheesy dotcoms by the mere virtue of dealing in "literature" rather than Chinese food or Free Martha (Stewart) campaigns. Maybe it's betting on us being more trusting because it's already a global brand.  Maybe there's some other non-classist reason to think this is fine. Probably not, though.