12/10/2014 — WHEN COMMERCE CREEPS INTO NOVELS
When I read a novel, there’s something sacrosanct about the relationship between the words and me. I become part of the world described by those words. I trust them, and the author behind them, not to violate our relationship and the world we’ve created. So when I find out some of those words are there because a corporation wants me to buy its product, I’m angry. If a character in a novel drives a Corvette, I want that car to be part of her personality, not some ploy to draw my attention to a particular brand. And when the dialogue defends the brand, as The New York Times says it does in Find Me I’m Yours by Hillary Carlip, I start to worry about literature of the future.
Product placement in novels is not new. In November 2000, Bill Fitzhugh wrote an article for The Guardian claiming to be the first novelist to use product placement in his work. For him, he said, the idea grew out of the novel’s story line. The protagonist is a hot-shot advertising exec and much of the story satirizes American hyper-consumerism, so inserting product placement seemed like a perfect twist, not to mention it might also attract some publicity. Fitzhugh had already sold film rights to the novel to Universal Studios, which at that time was owned by Seagram. Voila! Any generic drink mentioned in the novel suddenly became a Seagram’s product.
Fitzhugh’s only problem was that no one got the joke—the irony of advertising a product in a novel that lampoons advertising. A strong backlash arose accusing him of cheapening literature in general and the novel in particular.
But the backlash wasn’t strong enough to stop others from exploring the possibilities. In 2006, Running Press, a unit of Perseus Books Group, made a marketing agreement with Cover Girl to promote their products in Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233, a young adult novel. Fitzhugh had expected to receive money from Seagram’s in exchange for the nods he gave them, but they sent him a supply of liquor instead. This time Procter & Gamble, owner of Cover Girl, agreed to promote the novel on Beinggirl.com, a website aimed at adolescent girls.
Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, authors of Cathy’s Book, said they were comfortable with the marketing relationship because they had already included Cathy’s makeup tips in the book, so the changes didn’t fundamentally alter their content.
Find Me I’m Yours, one of the most recent marriages between literature and advertising, hit the major digital retail channels on November 3. More than just an e-book, it includes a series of websites and web TV shows. The websites are designed to expand the story line, which is a romantic comedy. As readers progress through the book, they can click on the websites to learn more about where the protagonist works or watch a video with an actor portraying one of the characters or even see photos of the protagonist’s dogs. Readers, as well as commercial sponsors, are invited to post content on the websites. Cumberland Packing Corporation, whose product Sweet’N Low receives the most attention in the book, is reported to have made a sizeable investment in the package.
You could argue that Find Me I’m Yours is not a typical novel, and you’d be right. But it still has the novel as its core.
Meanwhile, in England, William Boyd, the novelist who’s writing the new James Bond novels, signed a contract with Land Rover to feature the vehicle in his new novella, The Vanishing Game. Like Find Me I’m Yours, The Vanishing Game is a multi-media experience. It’s basically an e-book, but it has video, photography, animation, and sound attached.
The e-book is surely here to stay, and maybe the “e-book experience” with its multi-media expansions is, too. But they are still stories, and stories shouldn’t be violated by advertising. Good stories need to be specific. A character who drinks only Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve is different from a character who drinks bourbon. Just like seeing a flowering Dogwood is different from seeing a tree. Can you imagine reading an entire novel in which every noun is generic? Carbonated beverage isn’t the same as Coke. Pain reliever isn’t the same as Tylenol.
I don’t want the stories I read to be devoid of specifics. But I also don’t want to have to wonder every time I read a brand name in a novel whether it’s there for purposes of story or commerce. I hope readers will exercise their power by avoiding books that promote products. And preserve the pure reading experience.