There Is No Such Thing As A Free Lunch
As I sit here at my Corian breakfast counter drinking my Goose Island Root Beer and munching on my Dole Peeled Mini Carrots, I can’t help but consider the renewed arguments for advertising within books. After all, authors use brand names all the times to convey a certain iconic message. What is a spy without his Aston Martin or a uptown New Yorker without her Jimmy Choos and Manolo Blahniks? So what the author is receiving quid pro quo payment for the mention?
Product placement is nothing new. I blogged about it before when the topic arose at the publication of Cathy’s Book in which the authors collaborated with Proctor & Gamble to include a few specific references to Cover Girl makeup that the protagonist uses. In return for the product placement, P&G promoted the book at its website and through other avenues.
For The Bulgari Connection, Fay Weldon was paid an undisclosed sum for writing a book about Bulgari. In 2000, Bill Fitzhugh made waves when his “satire about American hyper-consumerism”, Cross Dressing, included a product placement for Seagrams in exchange for Seagrams provided publicity.
A serial novel by Mark Haskell Smith will be published in the Lexus quarterly magazine is “potboiler” detective novel which places an emphasis on the Lexus GS Hybrid. For the serial, Smith received a sum of money “more than a modest book advance but less than what he would get for an episode of Grey’s Anatomy.”
Author JA Konrath, whose publicity ideas include creating a blog where people can anonymously trash others in the industry, wants to take isolated product placements to the next level. He argues that the publishing industry is not taking advantage of ad dollars. Why not, he posits, make a character drink only coca cola or drive a Mazda RX7? Why not have ads in the back of the book for Alberto V05? And a coupon for Handi-wipes?
Here’s my voice as a reader. No, no, and a thousand times no. And not just because Alberto V05 reminds me of my grandfather. For one thing, I am sick to death of brand name droppings in books. Rarely does the use mean anything. I.e., in Margaret and Lizz Weiss’ book, Warrior Angel, the fact that the heroine used two different kinds of Annick Goutal and wore Stuart Weitzman shoes added nothing to the character, the motivations or the plot. The constant use of brand name items made me wish that I could climb through the pages with my Home Depot 100% hemp rope and strangle her wearing my Isotoner gloves that my dear husband purchased at last years’ Macy’s Red Dot Sale.
This is not to say that all name brand usages are meaningless. In the opening scene of Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews, the female protagonist is drinking Boone’s Farm Hard Lemonade. The choice of the liquor actually tells us something about the character. She purposely eschews the more glamorous in life for the anonymity of a common brand.
Second, product placements do not mean lower book prices. The Bulgari Connection, Cathy’s Book, and Cross Dressing were not sold at discount. In a product placement situation, the winners may be the author, the publisher and the manufacturer of said product. The loser is clearly the reader who has to pay the same money and suffer through an onslaught of Proper Names. I’ll need to read with a Sharpie to mark out all the Products identified so that any re-reads will be mercifully free of ads.
Third, any type of advertising other than product placements are not going to work. Consumers hate ads. Witness the TIVO and the ability to skip ahead 30 seconds that was coded into the software to assist users in avoiding commercials. In fact, we start watching TV shows 15 minutes after they start so we can skip through the commercials while watching on our Samsung Plasma TV. We all install pop up blockers. If the ads are at the back of the page, we’re likely to just ignore them.
Fourth, and what disturbs me the most, is that creativity will give way to commercialism as manufacturers have greater input into the content of the book. After all, if they are going to pair their brand name to your book wagon, they are going to want to make sure that the wagon looks exactly like they want it.
Isn’t that what is happening with Harlequin and Nascar. Nascar, in an effort to maintain a family image, refuses to allow any Nascar branded book to contain any sex, drugs, alcohol, or crashes. In exchange, Nascar helps to promote, distribute and sell the books. It’s a sweet deal for everyone but the reader.
What do you all think? For or against? Would it depend on the price? The number of ads? What about in ebooks?
Note: No animals were harmed in the writing of this article.