Product Placement in Books?

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.)

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

18 thoughts on “Product Placement in Books?”

  1. Product placement has always been around, to some degree, but as always it’s a question of perspective. As an author, you shouldn’t go crawling to anyone, least of all conglomerates. When the CEO of CocaCola phones you up and offers you ten million to have the lead in your next book drink his drink, then you should mull it over with due consideration. But until then, I think naming products should be avoided. Mind you, I write sci-fi set 70 years in the future, so it’s not such an issue to me 🙂

  2. Aside from certain cars (classics, etc.) or beverages (because in Texas, everything is a Coke), the main brands that have woven their way into my books are Converse (addict!) and Red Chapter Clothing (done purposely to give a small business some new eyes). I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mentioned that someone is drinking a Mountain Dew or driving a Corvette, but when every. little. thing. gets a name-brand, it does tend to get annoying. .

    1. It can get irksome at times, with some authors using the designer labels, cosmetics, and store names. But I don’t have a problem where it’s woven in naturally. If a female protagonist with two cents in her pocket hangs out in Sephora, that can be a telling character point, rather than showing every mascara and lipstick brand another character buys there.

  3. I use them when it lends realism to the story. I have a character (a sniper) who changes weapons. The weapon he chose to use is a rather new caliber, so only a few companies make rifles in that size. Since he relies on this weapon, I did research and chose the best one out there. Yes, I give the name brand, no the company is not aware that I used it (although I should send them a PDF of the book) the “product” proves to be exemplary, and in all, the manufacturer is portrayed in a favorable light. If I am going to bash something, I try not to use brand names- I don’t want to get sued!

    Great post.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. So probably the part of my book where a mother goes off on her son for eating at MacDonald’s isn’t gonna get me the promo bucks, huh? 😉

  4. Interesting topic, Laurie. I find myself slipping name brands into my books as one method of character description. A character’s commercial choices can say a lot about his/her background, tastes, class, etc. I wouldn’t mind receiving compensation for doing so, as long as I chose the product first, rather than imposing it on a character.

    On the other hand, I suppose there’s no way of knowing whether an author led the way or followed the money.

  5. My take on it is much like yours, Laurie. We need to make our characters reaL – and that means asking for an Advil, or a Coke, or a Kleenex. But to go into detail about how great that teen’s new Mustang is could be overload. I wonder what the companies whose brands we quote have to say about it. They are trademarked, after all. My guess is they would be pleased but you never know. I suppose it depends on what you say about the product – like the comment about MacDonalds.

  6. Though writing fantasy keeps me from even facing this dilemma, I agree with Yvonne above. If it helps add realism, I think product placement can be a wonderful tool.

  7. Funny, an author friend and I just had this conversation yesterday. We both came to the conclusion that using ‘mini Uzi’ was preferable to ‘sub-machine pistol’. Really messes with the flow 🙂
    Thanks for the great article, Laurie!

  8. One of the first things the editor of my first book commented on was the closet of my main character. It is full of haute couture and is lit by a Lalique chandelier. I begged to differ, and left it in. At every book club meeting I always ask what the ladies think of Miranda’s closet. They love it, and are shocked that my editor would have wanted it out.
    In this case, the fashion is history as well as adornment. The name dropping works. Often, the product placement is awkward and obvious.
    I am still waiting for Maserati to call …

  9. I can’t help myself. If a character wants a Coke, they’re getting a smegging Coke. Grimm listens to Skrillex before he was a thing and Lizzie eats at the Cafe Du Monde in New Orleans’ French Quarter. Now jeans are going to be jeans unless a character is a snob and is partial to Levi’s or Lucky Brand for whatever reason, but only if it adds something to the story. There is a balance, it can be struck. Product placement isn’t so much placement I don’t think, but an extension of our every day lives. It can work and then again it can be awkward.

  10. I’ve used specific models of cars in my series because it helps to explain the character’s mindset and/or station in life. But when the social worker whips out a handful of tissues, they’re tissues, not Kleenex. Maybe that’s because I like Puffs better, though, I dunno. 😉 I just hope I don’t ever get a letter from some trademark owner’s lawyer, demanding payment for using their trademark in a story….

  11. I use product names when it’s appropriate. A character might prefer to drink Budweiser or drive a Chevy pickup. An author can use product names to make a story sound realistic without sounding like a commercial. I highly doubt I’m going to get a letter from Budweiser saying they’re suing me because my character likes their product. On the other hand, I hope the makers of Lucky Lager don’t read the book in which I referred to their product as Lucky Laxative…

  12. A letter from a product’s lawyer keeps me from putting name brands in my novels. There is a couple of instances where I would have liked to use a certain brand for insight to the character, but broke out in a sweat and nightmares over it.

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