Your Ad, My Belly
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Going once ... Going twice ... Sold for $1,000, sponsorship rights to the live birth on March 18 of one baby girl! A month ago, in St. Louis, 21-year-old Asia Francis sold the rights to sponsor the birth of her first child to Globat LLC, a Los Angeles-based Web hosting company.
Globat president and CEO Ben R. Neumann came across Francis' offer at the online auction site, eBay, and made the winning bid of $1,000. "The opportunity to sponsor the birth of a child was simply too exciting to pass up," Neumann said in a press release.
In return, Francis agreed to wear Globat.com T-shirts whenever she stepped out of her home before her delivery and to sport a temporary tattoo of the company's red-and-black logo on her swollen belly. On the morning of March 17 when Francis drove to the hospital to induce labor, her car was decorated with Globat decals and car magnets. In the delivery room the expectant mother had Globat stickers around her pillow, her well-wishers all wore company T-shirts while the walls were decked with company posters and a banner. At 2:35am the next day, her baby, named Samiah Wynn Francis, was born, weighing 6 pounds, 15 ounces. The delivery itself was videotaped and selected segments will be posted for viewing on the company's Web site.
The sponsorship deal fits in with Globat's publicity strategy of paying for "at least one edgy event in every state of the United States." Helen Lee, the company's marketing director, thinks that the birth sponsorship makes for a "fun story that's unique and gets people talking about us." But how about from the new mother's point of view? Was all that worth $1,000?
"Nine months is a long time to sit around and not do anything," Francis said. "This gave me something to do."
Single motherhood ain't easy
Francis, a receptionist, is not being paid during the six weeks of her maternity leave and is not covered under her company's health insurance. Her father paid for her prenatal care.
As a single mother still living with her parents, Francis expects to eventually marry the father of her child and move in with him, but the couple has yet to set any dates. In the meantime, Francis is using the $1,000 to continue making her car payments and also help with her daughter's care.
Fear of miscarriage makes buying baby clothes or setting up a nursery before a baby's birth taboo in many cultures, as it is believed to be tempting bad luck. In the United States, almost 15 percent of pregnant women between 20 and 24 years of age experienced miscarriages in 2000, according to the New York-based Alan Guttmacher Institute. But Francis says she was "pretty aware" her baby was healthy and didn't think there was any risk involved in selling advance advertising rights.
Globat was actually the second company involved with Francis' pregnancy.
Before lining up her "birth sponsor," Francis found a "pregnancy sponsor." For three months starting in November last year, she auctioned off ad space on her swollen belly to Golden Palace, the online casino licensed out of the Mohawk Territory of Kahnawake, Canada. Golden Palace has a track record of tattooing pregnant women and sponsoring deliveries as a marketing tactic.
From December 2005 to February 2006, three pregnant sisters from St. Petersburg, Fla., who were all giving birth within a month of each other, agreed to advertise for the company. Photographs of the sisters displayed their swollen bellies under rolled-up T-shirts, with the Web address GoldenPalace.com stamped across their stomachs in bold letters.
In March 2005, the company sponsored the birth of a baby boy, Parker, to South Carolina resident Amber Rainey, who had previously auctioned ad space on her belly to the casino. Rainey encouraged bidding on her eBay site by arguing that people can't help but look at pregnant women's abdomens. "Obviously GoldenPalace.com agrees," the company said in a press release.
The video of Rainey's birth sponsorship--which Francis stumbled across while surfing through the auction pages of eBay, based in San Jose, Calif.--gave her the idea of putting up her own baby's birth for sponsorship.
"We pay to advertise for companies right now with the cars we drive and the brands we wear on our T-shirts," Francis says. "This way they pay us to advertise."
Not everyone agrees.
"I think that's an incredible rationalization," says Jean Kilbourne, author of the 1999 book, "Can't Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel." "I do agree that wearing clothing with brand labels is in fact advertising and we should be getting paid for it. But there was a time when we did not wear brands on the outside of our clothing. It's indicative of how advertising has colonized us and taken over our lives. The correct logic would be to refuse to be turned into a billboard." Kilbourne, a Boston resident, created the award-winning documentary series "Killing Us Softly," which examines the image of women in advertising. The first documentary came out in 1979 and two updates were released in 1987 and 1999.
The last time a pregnant woman who bared her belly caught the attention of the news media was when a pregnant Demi Moore let celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz shoot her naked for the cover of Vanity Fair in August 1991. The photograph caused a debate over whether she was desecrating the sanctity of motherhood or helping women love and flaunt their pregnant bodies. Leibovitz' photograph has been widely credited with giving pregnancy a pop-cultural sex appeal.
Francis' sponsorship stunt has also been picked up by national and international media. She has been featured on local radio stations and television channels and in newspapers as far away as Australia. Could this new ripple of media interest in pregnancy help change an advertising standard that usually prefers rail-thin women?
Kilbourne doesn't think so. "Pregnant women are the only ones who have permission to be fat. I still wouldn't see that as progress. What this shows is who owns her body. She's allowing herself to be used which is demeaning in itself. But it's particularly degrading when linked to something like pregnancy."
Asia Francis says she auctioned off the advertising rights to her baby's birth "75 percent for fun, 25 percent for the money." She also says she did it for her daughter. "I'm going to put the photos in my daughter's memory book," Francis says, "so she can see how excited we were about her birth."
Anju Mary Paul has an M.A. in journalism from New York University. She is a reporter in New York City.