Flesh Sells | Trish DiFranco

I’ve worked in advertising for almost 10 years. Up until last year, running out of water was the wildest thing that ever happened to me in a meeting. Even though I got my start at McCann Erickson, I avoided the racy advertising culture you see on episodes of Mad Men. I mean, I’m still willing to bet we drink more than any other working professionals, but the real wild stuff, like working overnight and having sex in the office is… rare.

One day, I’m writing at my desk when the top dog stops by–Joanne, chief creative officer. Joanne is everything. Powerful, mysterious, always draped in an eclectic collection of jewelry that’s so harmonic, it sings. Sometimes, I daydream about Joanne shopping at Anthropologie. When I go there, I channel her. I pretend to consider purchasing things, muttering just loud enough for the clerks to hear, “I don’t think this scarf will match actually,” and then hanging it back on the rack as if I can afford any of it. But I imagine when Joanne shops there, she just flings clothes off the rack and onto the cash register, saying “Box it up!” and walking out with her perfect dog in tow: that’s right, completing her sophisticated look is a feisty little dachshund, who trails her like a loyal assistant.

So Joanne pops into my office and asks if I have a second to meet with a new client—a tattoo client. Before I can process this request, we’re barreling down the hall toward our main conference room. Seated inside are three men with a prickly aura. Eye contact is hard to come by. The catered lunch we ordered for them? Getting cold on the table.

They were an unorthodox group with an unorthodox business concept: helping people bequeath their tattoos after they’re dead. You know, as a keepsake.

This business model was set up much like an insurance policy. You sign up for the service online–any time before you meet your maker–and digitally appoint which of your tattoos get passed on to which loved one. Once you’ve shuffled off your mortal coil, they hit the ground running. They’d work with funeral homes and morticians to make sure that within a week, your kids got your Tweety bird tattoo in the mail – you know, to throw on the mantle at Christmas time.

And we – we were tasked to market this “product.”

I didn’t know what to think. At first, my mind went to the initial product photo shoot. Would we be photographing dead body parts? How much of the preservation process would I see? Would I be collaborating with embalmers over a billboard headline? I told myself to relax, that this was just a new art form. To my great relief, the samples they showed us did present that way. Turns out skin–no matter what color–fades to white after the preservation process, so the samples looked like ink drawings on stretched canvas, framed in these elaborate gold frames, like something you might find at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

When I thought about it too hard, it felt squicky. I channeled Oprah for strength, shutting down all fear and hesitation. I channeled the sentiment in The Book of Mormon’s “Turn it Off.”

Then came the meeting of truth.

Joanne and I were seated in our weekly status meeting with our new skin preservation clients. We are halfway through planning their launch, checking off to-dos. Trade show, check. Website, check. Social media posts, check. It’s all going smoothly and we’re about to wrap up when the client slides in:

“I actually have one more item to add to the agenda, if there’s time.” A smirk slides across his face. Joanne gives the nod to continue. “We have a new 3D product we’ve been testing.”
 We probe a little further until he interrupts –

“Actually I brought it with me, would you like to see it?”

At this point I’m thinking 3D tattoos. I’ve seen those. They’re pretty trendy. That red/blue layered design that makes any image look like it’s popping off the skin. Cool. Got it. 3D tattoos.

He proceeds to pull out a blue, plastic bag from beneath the table. Inside is a tattoo sleeve, attached to an arm, neatly sliced from a human corpse.

My hands pile instinctively over my gaping mouth. There is a dead person’s forearm a few feet from my morning coffee. I don’t know how to respond. I look to Joanne for cues on how to handle the flesh paper towel roll situation.


But like the stone-cold diva she is, Joanne doesn’t bat an eye. Meanwhile I am head-down in my journal, pretending to take notes when I am actually writing: “A man just pulled an arm out of a bag. A man just pulled an arm out of a bag. A man just pulled an arm out of a bag,” until my fingers cramp.

The client is speaking again. “Do you think our audience would be ready for this at launch?” he asks, waving the arm around as casually as your dad holding a spatula at the grill, who wants hot dogs and who wants hamburgers?

Joanne pets the sleeping dachshund in her lap, and responds demurely, “I don’t think we should roll out the 3D option until phase two.”

That seemed to satisfy him. In one suave motion, he shoved the arm back into the bag andreached for my hand to shake.

I’d never felt so entirely out of my element in my own workplace; so entirely bewildered as to protocol and procedure. Ever since that day, I 100% understand how Don Draper could take down a vodka gimlet before noon. Not that I ever have, but I get it. Sometimes marketing meetings can be a downright out-of-body experience.


Trish DiFranco
, a first-generation American, got her start in New York City before realizing how awesome she could have it in Cleveland. Now a full-time writer and part-time storyteller, Trish enjoys supporting local artists, exploring gender and sexuality spectrums and pushing the boundaries of her cat, Gatsby. Visit trishdifranco.com to learn more about her exciting career in the wild world of advertising.
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