Product Placement: Coming Soon to a Book Near You

September 15, 2012 1:16 pm

Big Macs and Whoppers vying to become integrated plot devices in fiction novels?

Cans of Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper defining compelling character arcs in YA/tween fantasy?

Hip, young, internet-aware fiction characters using the nutritional and manufacturing advice on corporate web sites to argue their choice of everything from fast food to underwear?

Pizza Hut Chicken Dunkers laid as the irresistible bait to ensnare fantasy creatures possessing a sense of taste so heightened they can spot a tasty and nutritious meal a mile away?

Wise old mythical sages having no need to resort to the handy calorie counters to know just how ‘So Good’ for you KFC Tower Burgers really are?

Sounds far-fetched, I know. Scary, even. Middle Earth with Golden Arches. Narnia with a drive-thru. Harry Potter collecting Horcruxes and two-for-one McDonalds coupons. Scarier, in fact, than the scariest fiction. Art imitating reality imitating art imitating…well, you get the idea.

But will it happen? Modern, streetwise, identifiable characters fighting all manner of evil…whilst sipping a refreshing glass of Ocean Spray Orange Juice and eating a satisfying bowl of Cap’n Crunch that stays crunchy…even in milk. (How does it do that?)

A nightmarish scenario, I admit, for readers who prefer their cherished childhood memories unbranded and their literature unsullied by the literary equivalent of gaudy advertising hoardings.

Welcome to the brave new world of product placement in books.

Well, the brave new world as I see it in conjunction with a progressive publisher and savvy marketing consultant who think outside the box.

The more you think about it, what other future is there? For marketers and publishers it may yet boil down to a choice: embrace the sea-change or be left behind.

I know, I know. Product placement in books can be a touchy subject, though it is not without precedent.

In 2006 the tween chick-lit novel ‘Cathy’s Book: If Found Call’, was published with the spunky protagonist using various specific references to her favourite makeup (‘a killer coat of Clinique #11 Black Violet lipstick’) as part of her character development and, by association, the plot the heroine was driving.

Tellingly, the authors Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart both had backgrounds in marketing as well as being successful fantasy and sci-fi authors.

At the time, Marissa Roth writing for The New York Times noted that “product placement in books is still relatively rare. The use of even the subtlest of sales pitches, particularly in a book aimed at adolescents, could raise questions about the vulnerability of the readers. Many popular young adult novels, of course, already spread references to brands throughout their pages in series like ‘The Gossip Girl’ and ‘The A-List’, although there are no actual product placement deals.”

And the reason for the lack of advertising and branding deals? In reality, it was at the time largely a question of finding ways to successfully integrate brands into books rather than marketers fretting too much about compromising their ethical standards.

Back in 2006, conventional wisdom held that regular print ads, such as those traditionally found in magazines and newspapers wouldn’t work in books because the gestation cycle of a novel is too long. Marketers felt that books could never be nimble enough in marketing terms to move with a fast-changing market, especially in the tween/young adult demographic.

Moreover, from the perspective of creative integrity and longevity a very specific product reference might date your book along with the sponsor’s products and by association render a corporate image ‘stuck in the past’.

But that was over half a decade ago. Fast forward six years and the landscape is changing – a lot – but not yet in the integrated way I intend to steer it to ensure creative and commercial viability.

In short, regardless of any ethical concerns, or how you technically achieve it, dropping advertising into books is still a bit, er…clunky. For it to really work, there has to be a way to advertise and brand in books using product placement whilst maintaining creative – and dare I say it, literary – integrity.

In fact, from the perspective of a writer, there’s no other way it can work. If creativity in a book is not left intact and compromises a writer’s vision what are you left with? A book that is effectively little more than an extended ad for a product with no creative integrity beyond the gimmicky ‘sales hook’. (Trust me, kid’s ain’t buying it.)

In a recent article at Howstuffworks several other product-prominent published works are listed – works that don’t exactly (ahem) bend over backwards to seamlessly integrate the product into a compelling narrative, to say the least. They just stick the brand in the title and create an activity around it.

An example of titles containing heavy-handed commercialism aimed at a demographic some may feel is too young to be effectively or even ethically sold to include: ‘The Hersheys Kisses Addition Book’, ‘The M&M’s Brand Chocolate Candies Counting Board’, ‘Twizzlers Percentages Book’, ‘The Cheerios Christmas Play Book’ and ‘Skittles Riddles Math’.

As the author noted in the Howstuffworks article: “After reading these titles, you may be assuming that the companies are merely sponsoring the book and that the content is pretty standard fare – possibly not even incorporating theproduct into the content of the book. Think again. In ‘The Oreo Cookie Counting Book’, the back cover reads: ‘Children will love to count down as ten little OREOs are dunked, nibbled, and stacked one by one…until there are none!’”

Not exactly subtle then. And I, for one, am certainly not advocating such heavy-handed branding – if for no other reason than it can’t inherently achieve deep market penetration. And as the actual story in these titles is negligible anyway, what’s the point?

I suggest an uncompromising middle ground between great writing and responsible, effective advertising; it’s a middle ground marketers have not traditionally been able to reach in books because, as discussed, the lead times in traditional publishing were – and are – too long.

The bottom line? The medium doesn’t readily lend itself to creative and effective advertising – simple as that. Why not? Product placement in books can, and usually does, feel forced or not relevant; something in the equation ‘good books = great advertising opportunities’, it seems, always has to give.

Or it used to have to give anyway. Then along came the e-reader!

The Wall Street Journal’s Ron Adner and William Vincent issued a warning to readers who prefer their literature minus full-page ads for everything from iPod’s to tobacco: “With e-reader prices dropping like a stone and major tech players jumping into the book retail business, what room is left for publishers’ profits? The surprising answer: ads. They’re coming soon to a book near you.”

In a recent article on Techcrunch, Paul Carr notes: “The crux of the argument is this: books are the only word-based medium currently free of advertising (unless you count the pages full of ads for other books at the back of most mass market paperbacks). This isn’t – as you might think – because ads kill our enjoyment of literature (many magazines publish fiction surrounded by commercial messages) but rather because until now it’s been difficult to sell ad space in books.”

The article goes on to starkly clarify the future of ads in books as the author sees it, noting with withering humour: “Electronic books … also allow(s) messages to be tailored to the individual reader… Those reading the Twilight books at the age of 14 can be sold make-up and shoes and all of the other things teenage girls need to attract their very own Edward. Meanwhile, those still reading the books at 35 can be sold cat food. Lots and lots of cat food.”

So then. To paraphrase a well-known advertising slogan, the future’s bright, the future’s digital. Personal ethics and creative concerns aside, a writer wishing to pursue revenue or promotion along with his own personal ‘brand awareness’ in this market may yet find it increasingly ripe for commercial exploitation, with the old guard ready to sit up and take note of new ideas, concepts and proposals.

And why not? It saves time and money. As Paul Carr points out: “Publishers are really not geared up to sell ads: they’d have to recruit armies of ad sales people who would be forced to actually sit down and read the novels and historical memoirs and chick-lit-churn-outs that they’d be selling against. Not going to happen.”

What lessons can the aspiring novelist learn from this? Simple. A writer must stump up with a brilliantly written commercial concept that is able to incorporate product placement as an integral part of the plot, action and character development and get hustling with his manuscript.

And if it all sounds a bit too commercially driven and money-minded for literary purists – far from it. As a novelist my motto is: a good manuscript functions as a serviceable business plan until it is a published novel. And a business plan changes and adapts to professional input and changing market forces – anyone in business knows that. This input could be from a good editor, ghostwriter or, increasingly, a copywriter hired by a commercial sponsor.

Same difference.

Anyway, I must excuse myself as I have to send off my latest brilliant and innovative all-action, all-adventure YA fantasy manuscript – but not to agents and publishers. That is so 2011.

I’m sending mine to Pepsico, Yum! Brands and Tricon.


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