Even the casual TV or movie watcher may have noticed a recent barrage of product placement. Action heroes drive particular brands of black SUVs while the camera focuses lovingly on their nameplates. Cranky reality show judges sip from bottles labeled with the prominently displayed names of popular carbonated beverages, although what they’re actually drinking is anybody’s guess.
It’s all about the bucks, bucko. Production costs for movies and television shows are climbing so high that pretty much anywhere a set dresser can smack a well-heeled company’s logo, it sticks. Publishers, too, are feeling the painful pinch, and are always looking for the next way to cash in.
So let’s talk about what this means for your books. Some authors (KS Brooks) have been told that product placement woven into your story will make it more appealing to those who might want to make it into a screenplay, as owners of said products might be more willing to cough up a few dineros for production.
What? You say it’s outrageous to be asked to compromise your artistic integrity for commercial gain? Okay, some electronic reading-type devices already have advertising in their screensavers and banners in exchange for a lower sales price, and publishers are busily engineering how they can embed ads in eBooks, but after all, isn’t the actual storyline of a book one of the last places where we can be free of advertising? Or maybe you’re asking how you can hop onto the gravy train.
Well, let’s back up for a second.
Other players (mainly, those in the advertising and marketing departments of those well-heeled companies looking to spend their promotion dollars) say that we shouldn’t mind product placement in books, as unless we live in Og’s cave, we’re constantly bombarded with advertising messages from the time we crawl out of our beds to the moment when we collapse back into them. They see having your protagonist pound down a particular brand of adult beverage or lace up a popular brand of sneaker as a “natural extension” of the ads we already see in other media.
Some authors and publishers have tried this, to mixed results and harsh reactions. In 2006, a young adult mystery series published by an imprint of Perseus Book Group was given the metaphorical smackdown by none other than Ralph Nader when the authors revealed that Cover Girl, owned by Proctor & Gamble, promised coveted advertising space in exchange for having their protagonist use a particular line of cosmetics. Author Jane Smiley, a lovely and smart woman not given to public outcries, blasted the deal in an LA Times op-ed. (Although the president of Perseus claimed she never read the book.) Mainly the publishers were lambasted for pushing brand loyalty on impressionable teens, and when the book came out in paperback, all trademarked references were removed.
Though product placement has been popping up more and more in books meant for adults, and the reaction continues to be mixed. But not using a name brand in certain circumstances could make your fiction seem oddly…generic. Who, head pounding, turns to their significant other and says, “Give me a couple of your NSAID pain relievers.” What sixteen-year-old boy asks his rich uncle, “Dude, can I drive your expensive European sports car?” That ain’t real.
On the other hand, overloading on the trademarks has its costs. It could be one way to give your book an expiration date. Ask any fictional character gobbling down a Twinkie. Ask the couple dancing to the latest tune from a band that broke up a week after your release date. And, really, I know that Writer’s Digest magazine has that monthly column about using trademarked items properly, but how awkward is it to have your character burst into tears and ask her mother to pass her the Kleenex-brand facial tissues? Seriously.
It seems like we can strike a balance here. Yes, in fictional worlds, people go places and use products. They wash their hair and buy food and drive cars. By all means, let your character drink her favorite carbonated beverage and reapply her lipstick, but I’d rather leave the labels to the screenwriter.
What do you think? Are you ready for your close-up? Is this a savvy marketing tie-in? A cool way to finance your writing career? Or a slippery slope to crass commercialism? Discuss…
(Note: No compensation was exchanged for the use of the terms “NSAID pain reliever” or “expensive European sports car” in this blog, although the Kleenex people just dropped about seventeen suspiciously light cartons in my driveway.)