Sunday, March 02, 2008

Ad Placement in Books: Acceptable or Not?

Any movie fan can recognize "product placement" when he sees it. There's nothing like a close-up of your favorite actor, right in the middle of a scene, picking up a can of Coke or his favorite bag of chips to make you flashback to the last television commercial you saw. That kind of thing is extremely distracting and often ruins the effect of a scene. But I never thought we would see the day that authors literally sell "ads" in their novels to the highest bidder...looks like those days of innocence are gone. Of course, Stephen King used to fill his books with so many references to current products and brand names that I often wondered if he had a few deals going on the side, but he doesn't do nearly as much of that now as he did in his early books.

According to this article in The Oregonian, ad placement in books is becoming more commonplace all the time and we, as readers, have some decisions to make. Will we tolerate this kind of thing or does it tell us something about the authors who prostitute themselves this way that turns us off their books forever?
...until 2002 -- when Fay Weldon accepted money from the Italian jeweler Bulgari to title her novel "The Bulgari Connection," books had been the exception to the product placement rule.

Recently, product placement has found its way into kids' books. Two young adult novels -- "Cathy's Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233" and the Mackenize Blue series -- have drawn attention for the product placement between their pages.

The authors of "Cathy's Book," Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, exchanged their character promoting Cover Girl makeup for ads on Cover Girl's Web site. The author of the upcoming Mackenzie Blue series, Tina Wells, the CEO of Buzz Marketing Group, is seeking corporate sponsorship for her books.
...
At Annie Bloom's Books, owner Bobby Tichenor has a strong stance on product placement in books. "We have a policy against buying children's books about products predominantly," she said.

Tichenor said product placement "cheapens books." But books have been slowly devalued far longer than the recent trend of product placement. Deep discounts at major bookstores and new and moderately popular authors receiving smaller and smaller advances while a few brand-name authors reap millions are far more detrimental to the value of books.
...
As writers fight over meager freelance dollars and nonroyalties from their poorly marketed and poorly selling books, it's possible that the only people who value the written word are advertisers. Tichenor said readers will see more product placement, "if it works." It may not work for the reader, but it certainly works for the author as a much-needed and deserved added income. And why shouldn't authors take advantage? Everyone else is doing it.
Was Fay Weldon wrong to sell her book title to Bulgari? I haven't read the book so I can't say how much Bulgari was mentioned in the pages of the book and whether or not it turned into a paid commercial for the company. Hopefully, the commercial only went as far as the title of the book, but I doubt it.

Interestingly, the author of this newspaper article is a YA author herself and, as the last paragraph I quoted shows, she seems to be in favor of milking this new cash cow as much and as quickly as possible. "Everyone is doing it"? I quit accepting that excuse from my children by the time they were five years old and it sounds ludicrous coming from the mouth of an adult. I find that attitude to be repulsive and will never take any author seriously who sells out that way. Now, perhaps Ms. Lion is only giving a satirical tongue-in-cheek argument in defense of this trend; if so, I apologize for misunderstanding her intent.

But I don't doubt for a minute that a substantial number of authors will be willing to prostitute their work to the highest bidder. OK, now we know what to call them...we just don't know how much they charge for their service.

22 comments:

  1. Wow-that sucks. If I ever read a book with product placement, I'd immediately put that author on my 'do not read ever' list. And that last paragraph was pretty ridiculous; how is it 'deserved' income? This sounds like a good way to alienate readers-you know, the people who buy the books. Hmph

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  2. I read one in a book recently (I can't remember what the product was, but remember being surprised and uncomfortable with it). It was one sentence in the entire book, but bothered me.

    I think this is a good topic to spread among book bloggers -- maybe if authors realize that there might be repercussions, it would nip this practice in the bud.

    I've always hated the "everyone else is doing it" faulty logic/excuse.

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  3. Picture books are the worst for this- even more terrible when you consider that the intended readers are at their most vulnerable age. I can't tell you how many classrooms I've been in where teachers think it's totally acceptable to have M&M's or Hershey counting books. Cheerios has one as well- only marginally better since they are healthier.

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  4. Eva,that's pretty much my reaction to the whole question. It's hard to respect a writer who does not respect himself and his work...and anyone accepting these payoffs obviously has no self-respect.

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  5. That's a great idea, Jenclair. I'd love to see this openly discussed on the lit blogs...mainly to see if anyone can change my mind about the concept. Maybe I'm missing something...but I can't imagine what it might be.

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  6. John, do those companies provide the books free to the schools? I suppose that would somewhat justify their acceptance into the classrooms, but it is still marginal in my mind. Kids are simply bombarded with commercials to the point that they have to have everything they see on television as it is...there has to be a limit.

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  7. Ugh. I'd prefer flyers or ads in the book. At least those can be taken out.

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  8. Overall, I'd say product placement is annoying and a sad trend. However, there are some instances where using a specific product can be helpful in a novel - if the author mentions that a character owns a Ferrari, it tells us some things about the character without the author having to say, "John Smith was rich, flashy and compensating for something..." ;) Being paid by Ferrari to use a Ferrari would be innapropriate, but I wouldn't disregard an author just because he mentioned a specific product.

    In addition, I don't really have a problem with the M&Ms, Cheerios, etc. books - they're educational tools using things that interest kids. But, more importantly, it's more than obvious that it's a "commercial" for Cheerios, etc. If a parent chooses to buy it, it's their perrogative. The problem is when you get blindsided with product placement slipped into a regular genre book - when there's no point for it.

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  9. i've become quite conscious about this in movies. but maybe over time, i guess i'll become desensitized to it.

    but wow, this has made it even into books? very sad. everything is becoming too commercialized for comfort. definitely a sure way to turn off potential readers.

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  10. I think the real issue is that such references tend to cause a book to date more rapidly than it might otherwise. References to Pan Am (just as an example) have no meaning to those who never heard of it.

    Like the rest of your readers, I too dislike the idea that we have to tolerate advertising in every situation in modern society.

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  11. Doesn't bother me. Writers have mortgages and kids who go to college. If they can make some extra cash, why not? I don't have to buy what they are selling.

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  12. I agree, Sylvia...inserts into books don't bother me. But I suppose that if the author used the advertised products in the book with the inserts added later it would still be tacky enough to irritate me.

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  13. Annie, I agree that mentioning brand names is sometimes helpful...it's only a problem, IMO, if the writer makes a big deal of the brand after having received a cash payoff to do so. I don't need that.

    ...good point about the children's books, but I suppose it still depends largely on the product in question. Candy sponsors might be pushing the envelope in a way that more healthy products don't.

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  14. I just don't like the idea, aloi...even if the money is going into the pockets of a writer I respect, it tells me something about the writer I would rather not know, thanks.

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  15. Good point there, Jill...some of the "easy money" might be detrimental to the life span of the books in the long run...seems fair to me. :-)

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  16. I hear you factotum, and I can agree that ad placement in most of what hits the best seller list won't do much harm to author reputations since so much of that stuff is already junk. But serious writers should approach their work with more pride than that and should be able to resist the temptation of prostituting their work for a few bucks.

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  17. I HATE ads! Now, we get ads before previews at the movies, sometimes to the point of edging out 2 previews for an extra ad. Argh!

    But, authors use products to give the reader clues to certain characters. I'll use coke as an example. A character drinking coke speaks South to me. As I read an instant bond is established - I like coke drinkers - and I'm sympathetic to the character. A northerner might think, jerk and/or country, and have a wary feeling toward the non-pepsi drinking character.

    Oh, speaking of Bond, we know he is a man of taste with his Rolex Oyster Perpetual, Morlands specially made cigarettes, and the infamous shaken not stirred martini.

    Richard Jury's Old Peculier and Stephanie Plum's dead uncle's Buick are really just clues into the characters. I'm sure you get me and now have many more examples...

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  18. I love your examples, Maggie, and I agree with that kind of use of branded products...but we can tell the difference between that and paid ads for the most part. I mentioned before how much Stephen King uses/used that technique and it almost always worked well for him...every once in a while becoming a bit annoying, though.

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  19. At a friend's book discussion group this past month, we spent a huge amount of time on this particular subject. Trying to pin down precisely where the line should be was a very difficult thing to do. We agreed that brand names might cause a book to become dated more rapidly than it would otherwise, but by the same token, when we thought about the award winning Because of Winn-Dixie,there was some suggestion that much depends upon the author's skill and artistry.

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  20. I use brand names occasionally for verisimilitude, but now I'm wondering if readers think I'm taking money for it! Have to think about that one.

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  21. Katrina, I agree that the use of brand names can add "punch" and "truth" to a story if not overdone. What most readers will object to is not that kind of thing; what bothers us is the blatant selling of a book reference to the highest bidder or, even worse, where this kind of thing is overdone in books aimed at the teen or children's market.

    It is fairly easy to tell the difference between what you describe and what some writers are willing to do. Isn't it Harper Collins that has a new series of books aimed at teen girls that is pretty much a sell-out to one of the big shoe makers?

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  22. Jill, I guess the line would have been crossed if the author knew that despite "Winn-Dixie" being perfect for the story she wanted to tell, she renamed the book "Because of Kroger" because that company paid her a few thousand dollars to make the change.

    Overall, I agree that it's a fine line and sometimes it's a close call because of that.

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