Thursday, April 17, 2008

Product Placement in Books

I was listening to the radio recently when they were talking about product placement in television and movies. There are definitely times when the product placement has become so insane that it actually distracts from my viewing pleasure. For the most part, however, I’ve gotten used to it and don’t notice it.

And while this isn’t a new idea, it got me thinking about the potential for product placement in books and how both authors and readers would feel about such a thing if the possibility came up. Now, more than likely, companies would approach best-selling authors first and most likely authors of commercial fiction. But if Jack Reacher suddenly became a devoted owner of Hanes T-shirts only or Stephanie Plum only started drinking her coffee from Starbucks, would you as the reader care? What about authors? If Coke approached you and asked that your protagonist only drink Coke, would you take the money and run or would you have reservations? And last, what about authors who write for kids and teens? Is product placement fine for adult literature, but more questionable when you’re targeting youth, or does it not matter?

My thoughts are that if it becomes a potentially new way for the author to make money, the author retains control of the products and placement, and it doesn’t distract from my reading, I wouldn’t care, but I’m curious what you think. . . .



Anonymous said...

Hm, the hero in my curring WIP is guzzling a Fosters, I wonder if I could get a case or two of brew in payment.

Unknown said...

We use product placement anyway to show character. As long as the products were complementary to the characterization I'm all for it. Note that Stephanie Plum already has a love for Tasty Cakes and caused many people to go search them out.

Anonymous said...

Contemporary life spilling over into contemporary fiction or non-fiction is par for the norm. It doesn’t bother me at all and adds flavor to the pages.


Julie Weathers said...

Well, my main character is in a medieval fantasy so if she starts drinking Coke, it might be a problem. Of course, if a noted armor maker who has been in business for several centuries offered me a set of armor....

In my thriller, one of my cowboys was wearing some spurs only rodeo cowboys would recognize. Sprinkling brand names throughout a book would irritate me as a reader.

Once or twice to demonstrate a particular quirk I can deal with. Paying for an advertisement for Coke would make me quit reading that author.

Heidi the Hick said...

Y'know, sometimes a product is part of a lifestyle. I'm a details person, so it was important to me that my hero-villain drives not just a truck, but a black Chevy truck. However, I didn't note what brand of cigarette he smokes. That never even occurred to me until now. Maybe it's because I'm quite anti-smoking.

However, product placement has zero place in fiction for kids. They're bombarded with advertising and peer pressure as it is, without having disguised ads sprinkled through their books.

Jay Montville said...

I write YA and tend to avoid brands for the same reason that I avoid talking too much about technology - not because of influencing kids, but because it can date the book very quickly and start to signify something about the character that I don't necessarily want to signify. So unless the brand was innocuous within the story (like, in my story, Coke) or had an enduring signification (like, again in my particular story, Doc Maarten), I would resist the product placement.

Wilfred Bereswill said...

I agree with Jeanne. If it fits the character, go for it.

Obviously a guy that drives a Viper is a different animal than one who drives a Vega.

If Chevy gave me $1000 to replace my Protag's Tarus with an Impala, he'd be in it as fast as I could do a find and replace.

However, it Maserati asked me to put her in a Gran Turisimo in the second book, I might have to say no.

Anonymous said...

The Gemini in me is warring. I don't mind product names in books as long as it's seamlessly integrated into the story. If it screams 'commercial', I won't like it. However, I feel that way as an adult and about books I would read. I can see a product name and decide if it's something I'd like to check out. If my child were to read about products in stories, I doubt I'd be as free-thinking. I'd rather a child's book be filled with story. There's enough to distract them in real life. Reading should take them away from all that.

Anonymous said...

Oh my God! Aren't we already inundated with advertising? Do we really need more?

The only valid purpose I can see is if it is truly necessary to show character traits, and even then it should be treated gingerly.

Just this old fart's cynical opinion.

Anonymous said...

I'm learning that anything generated from within a character feels right. Anything attached after the fact -- such as a brand placement -- feels contrived. Sigh....the era of literature is waning and the era of marketing is in full bloom.

Recently, I read a book where the author referenced a book by a bestselling author. Yep -- you guessed it. I turned the book over and, lo and behold, the author had written a blurb for her.

Gina Black said...

Products should only exist in a story as an aspect of character. Since my characters come from me, it's very unlikely you will ever find them drinking diet Coke, eating Krispy Kreme donuts, or doing anything that I'm convinced would ultimately kill them. (Although it is possible they might stop for an In-N-Out Burger . . . )

Keri Ford said...

Recently, I read a book where the author referenced a book by a bestselling author. Yep -- you guessed it. I turned the book over and, lo and behold, the author had written a blurb for her.

Not attacking you,Annon 9:11 but often times when this happens, it's the author marketing their other pen name in a different genre. Which I don't have a problem with, because if all my publishing dreams come true, I would be in a position to do the same. not sure if this your case, but my characters would wear t-shirts saying "I heart Nora Roberts" in exchange for a blurb.

I don't even notice products in books so long as there's not a bunch and I know what the product is.
A made up example: "He checks his Praker" Well, is that his watch? shirt? pants? Not a brand but part of his anatomy? I've been left wondering this too many times.

Gail said...

You bet. Real people love certain products. I only drink one cola if I can get it, so if someone wanted to pay me for inserting that sort of real life into my fiction I'd do it. However, not if the product were harmful, then only the villain would use it. grin.

Anonymous said...

Depends on the product and how sweet the deal is, but I personally have favorite pens, jeans, and brands of shampoo, so I wouldn't hesitate to give my characters favorites too. Of course, any company that wants me to stop the action and extol their product--or even go on about how great it is for longer than a normal person--has to automatically add a digit to their offer. And even then I'd hesitate.

For books I'm reading, it depends on how it's handled. I never felt that Stephen King was shilling for Pall Malls no matter how often his characters smoke them. But I'd raise eyebrows if a character developed, say, a fixation on a particular brand of antacid.

Spy Scribbler said...

I can attest to their success: Stephanie Plum's addiction to TastyCakes has gotten me addicted!

They should definitely be paying her! I don't like her Butterscotch Crimpets, but I love the Candy Cakes with the peppermint inside.

I didn't even know they existed until Stephanie Plum mentioned them!

Ulysses said...

Product placement happens anyway in a lot of work. Characters order a Miller, drive a Ford, wear Armani or suffer a fender bender in the Target parking lot. It makes a scene a little more concrete and believable to use a specific brand name than to go with the generic beer, truck, suit or department store. Of course, it has to be a recognizable brand name. Right now I've got a Nextar on my desk. Could be a computer, a phone, a personal organizer or a coffee cup. If you don't know it's an MP3 player, then you can't picture my desk at all and will have no idea what I'm doing when I use it.

I don't have a problem with product placement, so long as that's as far as it goes. If, however, Roger Hanson takes a Coke from the fridge and offers it to his friend Jim with the words, "Want a Coke, Jim? It really does add life."

Then I think there's going to be trouble. I'd rather not insert commercials... unless they're going to pay me what they pay the NFL for 30s of Superbowl time.

Sean said...

product placement would be a good idea if the placement could be done with making the placement fits where it is written, doesn't adversely effect the character or story and if there is the potential of multiple stories with that character or characters. Unless the author goes out of his or her way to seek out product placements for each story.

that is only my opinion though

Diana said...

And don't forget Ranger's Bulgari shower gel!

Anonymous said...

Oh, Julie! I love Coke. The characters I love drink Coke. The ones I don't might drink Pepsi. (Just kidding, folks.) I wouldn't compromise the character for advertising, but a stipend for the "free advertising" wouldn't bother me.

Anonymous said...

I�ve mentioned products in my stories, but not for the sole purpose of drawing attention to that specific product. My heroine might like wearing Mary Janes, but that doesn�t mean the entire story�s focus is on her shoes. I think product placement in books is fine as long as it doesn�t take away from the overall story. After all, you wouldn�t want your love story between Jane and John to be about their love of Pepsi�unless it was an integral part of the story.

Peace Out.

Anonymous said...

And no one else sees this as selling out?


You're all kidding, right?

Anonymous said...

There are already too many brands mention in contemporary US novels, IMO. Koontz comes to mind, to mention one.

These infinite brand names drive me crazy. Partly because I'm European so I don't even know half the brands, partly because it makes it seem the characters pay minute attention to the brands they use. That seems utterly foreign to me, and to my idea of what all but a handful of these characters would be interested in. Maybe it's an American thing...?


Kate Douglas said...

I occasionally use a brand name to add to a scene, but after reading an article awhile back about the effect of product names in Young Adult stories, I'm much more circumspect about their use. According to the article, product placement in books is having a huge effect on the buying habits of kids--marketing has even more power over them than adults. It seems somehow subversive to me, unless it's something you need to use to define a scene or a character.

Anonymous said...

I suppose that this has been going on for decades. Every time James Bond reached for a Dunhill, or a deerstalker wearing detective fired a Webley, advertising, probably uncompensated, was at work.

Specificity in all writing is vital for verisimilitude and if it can result in extra income for the writer I have no problem with it.

This issue came to prominence about 20 years ago. I still have the New York Times clipping (Jan 13 1989) about a rather good payoff for a writer. . . .

(Beth Ann) Herman received a $15,000 party at the Wilshire Maserati dealership in Beverly Hills on Dec. 14 that drew coverage from Cable News Network and ''Entertainment Tonight.'' In ''Power City,'' her new novel about the ''sizzling, unforgiving world'' of Hollywood public relations, she featured a Maserati whose ''V-6 engine had two turbochargers, 185 horsepower and got up to 60 in under 7 seconds.''

She also won a window display of her book from Giorgio, the luxury-goods shop in Beverly Hills, for mentioning the store as one of the ''opulent temptations of Rodeo Drive.''

Clive Cussler received a special edition Doxa Diving Watch from the company because his hero Dirk Pitt uses nothing but in the books.

Yet it simply cannot be an effective use of the advertising dollar. The lead times for novel publication alone would make it nearly impossible for an advertising director to intelligently plan a campaign unless dealing with a product that has a life span in multiples of years.

That lets out all electronics, seasonal and trend fashions, other books, unless very long shelved, television and movie connections, to name just a few categories.

Then there is the problem of consumer reach. As an advertiser you want huge numbers of eyeballs and you want repetition. That last is vital because the sale usually isn't made until after repeated message impressions, usually many times.

While you might, perhaps, get audience reach with a mega best seller you will only get one shot at the consumer, even if the hero manages to consume that $500 dollar bottle of bespoke sherry in every chapter and rhapsodizes over it every time.

An advertiser is always going to be far better off using one of the mass media rather than a novel.

Having said all that, I believe an author with some sort of track record and a little gumption could make some nice side income by cold calling some advertising agencies or product manufacturers and asking for compensation.

You don't get unless you ask.

Scott said...

I think I've read a novel in which one of the main characters is an author, who after he writes his books gets his agent to negotiate deals for putting specific brand names into it. I think it was from the mid-20th Century, and was meant as a scathing satire. Another case where life imitates art, but unironically.

I wish I could remember the book. I want to say it was Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, but research tells me that's not right.

This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbie said...

A lot of contemporary fiction already uses brand names. If brand names are used frugally throughout a story, I can accept it. However, I find it off-putting if, for example, the car make is mentioned every last time the characters gets in his car. If the author was paid to mention a brand name, I suspect (s)he'd be required to mention the brand a lot or have to pause the story to state how wonderful the product was. In that case, I'd not continue to read that author's books.

Books aren't the same as movies. A movie has to fill in the visual details, one way or another, and it's natural to see the characters use products we're familiar with. However, authors have the option of not stating what brand of product is being used. A movie character might jump into his Ferrari without me pausing to consciously think about what type of car it is. However, with a print medium, you can't help but notice brand names and think about them as you read the words. The "advertising" becomes more blatant when it's in print, and that's bound to turn off at least some readers.

AmyB said...

I feel strongly that books should be an oasis where readers can escape the bombardment of advertising we're subject to in almost every other venue. I'm fine with authors including brand names as part of characterization and world detail. But any author who starts selling advertising space in his/her books is an author I won't be reading anymore.

Anonymous said...

My characters occasionally use certain products appropriate to their personality. (What I seem to find myself brand-naming most often is cars, although I'm not a car person; but cars say a lot about character.) If a company read my published book and offered me compensation for having mentioned their product, perhaps I'd take it (or perhaps not); but no way would I accept it on the front end. I don't want my writing to be influenced by commercial considerations. And as a reader, if product placement became blatant or inappropriate, it would definitely bug me.
My kids read mostly fantasy, so fortunately it's not an issue there; but I would hate for them to be bombarded with products when they read.

Angie Fox said...

As an advertising writer and an author, my first instinct would be to run in the other direction. Companies love product placement, but they also like creative control. An author would have to be very, very careful that the "sponsor" didn't start mandating how a product is portrayed, or how it's used.

That said, suppose it could depend on the genre, and on the story itself. Stephanie Plum enjoying a Tasty Cake is very different from my biker witches, who keep their spells in recycled Smuckers jars. I don't think my book will bump peanut butter sales in the least. The witches keep their "live spells" in ziploc bags with holes poked in them. Do I want to hear from ziploc about proper usage? Nope.

Besides, I think book readers are more purist in their tastes than then general movie-watching public. I could see readers getting offended. I know I would if I paid $6.99 for a book that was obviously riddled with placement.

With everything, I suppose, it depends on how it's done. I'd be interested to see how it works - on someone else's books. ;)

Liana Brooks said...

All writing is product placement to some degree. Maybe it isn't brand name product placement but if you read a chic lit about a shoe shopper the chances are that you'll go hunting for shoes in the near future (or want to).

Personally, I wouldn't do brand name product placement because I couldn't make Coke fit into sci-fi or fantasy (although Red Dwarf did...).

For teens and kids, meh, I don't have a problem with it if Susie B. Book only wears Hanes underroos but I'd draw the line at Trojan or Joe Camel cigarettes. Granted, a teen might very well use them but I'm not sure they need to be encouraged in some areas.

Anonymous said...

i think it's an interesting idea as long as creative control isn't compromised. i agree that brand names in contemporary fiction add flavor to a character that saying they ate "snack cakes" or drank "soda" lacks.

inevitably, people will cry "sell out!" at this concept in any form, but the reality is that publishing is a business and authors need to be brands themselves to truly succeed. some people turn their noses up at popular authors. personally, i hope to be among them someday, so i'm going to continue to write the best book i can write and then market the hell out of myself. if adding an appropriate, unintrusive product placement to my story helps advance my career, then i'm not going to dismiss it.

PJD said...

I now have a plan to have a truly despicable character, one every person in the world can hate with equal vigor. Then I will contact all the major brands and inform them that this character will use their products in my books unless they give me... um, sufficient reason not to.

Or, how about this: Rather than payment for product placement in your book, you negotiate book placement with their product? If your character eats Cheerios(R) brand oat circle cereal product, then General Mills could put your book alongside their boxes in the cereal aisle of the supermarket. Or Subaru could carry your book next to their product literature in their showrooms. Limitless possibilities!

This could go a long way. If your character eats at McDonald's, then you could get McDonald's to create happy meal toys of your characters.

Or, um, we could all just write good stories that people like to read. I hope some day I get so popular that I have to wrestle with the moral dilemma of becoming a sell-out.

Unknown said...

I don't have a problem with product placement. Heck, a lot of romance novels anymore name things like Jimmy Cho shoes, Mark Jacobs bags, and other designer items to specify how maybe a character pampers herself, or some such.

I use products in my books, everything from certain brands of drinks to vehicles, simply because I think saying "Chevy Tahoe" draws a stronger picture in a reader's mind verses just saying "the SUV." I mean, there's dozens of different kinds of SUV's out there, and there's a huge difference between a Saturn Vue and a Chevy Tahoe.

If Chevy wanted to give me a new Tahoe because I used their car in my book, well, I wouldn't complain a bit, however, I'm not going to stop being specific in my descriptions.

Ulysses said "If, however, Roger Hanson takes a Coke from the fridge and offers it to his friend Jim with the words, "Want a Coke, Jim? It really does add life.""

And that's where I draw the line too -- it's one thing to be specific, but it's another to directly plug.

Unknown said...

I was just thinking of this issue. I'm reading Jodi Piccoult's THE TENTH CIRCLE, and the product placement borders on intrusion to me...the girl doesn't put on her jacket, she puts on her North Face jacket. The man doesn't buy cheese, he buys Kraft cheese. It's a little annoying--I don't think Piccoult sold out or anything, I think she's just showing detail...but it's still annoying and a little distracting.

Anonymous said...

I think product placement is natural. When I read Sue Grafton's books and her main character eats at McDonalds, it tells me something a little more than just 'fast food' would.

I'm familiar with McDonald's and I know she didn't eat tacos or burritos or fish, or one of the mulititude of fast food choices.

I mentioned popular authors in my book, not because of any favor they've done me (I will probably never meet Dick Francis) but to give readers an idea of the books being read when stranded during a flood. A couple of mysteries isn't quite the same. That could mean anything from Agatha Christie to Kay hooper (any of you reading this, grin!)

At the same time, if you're having to think of where to put product placement, probably not a good thing, as that would not be a believable part of your character's traits.

If you're character is picky as part of his/her personality, saying which products they preferred would help emphasize that. Otherwise, I know it's used to help ground the story into a believable structure.

Keep it simple, and keep creative control. If your character already drinks pepsi and they want to give a little, why not? If they want to make them drink pepsi when your character is a health not who wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole? Definitely not!

Use common sense.

Anonymous said...

My first reaction -- this is a problem I should have.

I currently use product names in my manuscripts as part of character development and description for all the excellent reasons other bloggers have mentioned. I'm envisioning some business wanting to recognize my usage with monetary or other rewards, which sounds tempting. I'm not envisioning a company approaching me up front with placement requests or suggestions and offers "I can't refuse."

Product placement is fine with me -- as long as I'm the one who initiates who uses what in my books.

Chris Redding said...

My characters drive either BMW's or Porsches or Mustangs. Think any one of them would be interested?

I'd have a problem, maybe, until I cashed that first check. Though if I wrote YA or children's I don't think I'd do it.

Anonymous said...

Has any author ever signed a product placement deal? Has one ever even been offered?

I know S. King has always had his characters drinking Coke and stuff, but he just did it so he could juxtapose the everyday familiar with the unknown scary. I never thought that COke would pay him money for it...but now I wonder.

Julie Weathers said...

In Dancing Horses, the thriller I referenced, I did use some brand names. Kelly spurs, Wranglers and maybe Skoal. Wranglers are kind of like the Kleenex, Xerox thing. Most cowboys wear Wranglers so you just say, "He grabbed a clean pair of Wranglers and jerked them on," instead of jeans or pants.

One bit of name brand dropping I did do is about horse pedigrees. Since part of the mystery was about the murder of champion cutting horses, I was pretty careful to use established pedigrees. This was done for a couple of reasons. It established credibility and it establsihed a time period without beating readers over the head with it.

The time period had to be specific because of a plot line.

Would I drop a brand name dually pickup in there because someone paid me? It depends. If it was a Toyota, no. If it was a brand that would be typical to the story, perhaps. The bottom line is it would have to be something that would already be there and be completely in character, if not character defining.

The mention of a package arriving from Victoria's Secrets would trigger an image for people of what kind of woman this is. However, I also have two very senior ladies who carry around a dog-eared Victoria's Secret catalogue so that isn't always a correct image.

For the most part, I don't want my books to be billboards. I don't want name brands jumping out at people.

Sean said...

as long as a character which is created doesn't have product placement written all over him or her, and it is written so it is a personal preference for the character when it comes to the reasonable useage of the product who would honestly know the difference?

T. M. Hunter said...

My manuscripts are usually set in some far-off galaxy, so I don't run into this problem.


I was going to mention Kinsey Milhone's love for Quarter Pounders with Cheese (in Sue Grafton novels), but see someone beat me to it...

The question is (and already asked by anonymous)...has there ever been an author who ever received payment for product placement?

I can't see why they would. The exposure is too limited.

WordVixen said...

I don't see anything wrong with it if it's handled responsibly. Most of our characters are devoted to one thing or another, and it may or may not be the same thing that the author is devoted to. My protag, for example, would only drink macchiatos. I'd never had one until I decided that I'd better try it if my protag was going to be drinking them all through her book.

If Starbucks approached me and said "how about a Grande Frappe instead?", I don't see how it would affect my book.

It would probably be an issue for readers though. The last thing you want is for your readers to distrust you or your writing. But most of us already push something or another. Just, not for pay.

The only way that I can see it working well though, is if they simply get a page after the copyright page that says "Sponsored by", etc (like public television). Any other way gets too complicated.

Aimlesswriter said...

In one of my books I've destroyed most of mankind but the Twinkies survived perfectly fresh...if it ever gets published do you think Twinkies would pay me? lol
I think its okay as long as its done responsibly. No teens smoking Marlboros or chugging Schmirnoff and I'm fine with it.

Anonymous said...

"The only way that I can see it working well though, is if they simply get a page after the copyright page that says "Sponsored by", etc (like public television). Any other way gets too complicated."

That's too much for me. I was thinking more along the lines of, "'ll have my character addicted to Red Bull™ instead of generic "caffeinated beverages" if you pay me x amount, but "sponsored by?" Hell no. There will be no mention of the sponsor in the book with the exception of how it appears in the story itself. In fact, I might even want a secrecy clause so that when asked I have the legal right to deny any and all affiliation with said sponsor at my discretion, and the sponsor is contratually onbligated to never disclose our relationship.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I considered the possibilities of just such an idea many years ago. In one of my (unpublished) books I had my hero drink a particular brand of wine that I especially liked. I joked with my wife that perhaps I could score some free wine for the plug. So to answer your question: if it is in keeping true to the spirit of the character, then I see no harm in it. In fact, why shouldn't an author benefit for plugging something the character would likely use? After all, consider other venues: you can hardly see the car beneath the ads on NASCARs. Pro golfers sell their bodies as human billboards. It's pervasive in movies, as you observed. I say go for it. Of course, I'm an old advertising creative director/account executive and my perspective is likely biased toward the tantalizing merchandizing opportunities that might well provide another income stream for authors who don't make all that much to begin with.

Anonymous said...

I don't mind judiciously used product names for a touch of reality and to further characterization. But I once read a book by a best-selling author who used product names on every single page. I figured out why -- the story was absolutely lousy otherwise. I was disgusted, both by the commercialism and by the author's lack of effort. I wrote a letter to the publisher explaining how I felt. Surprisingly, I received a reply that as I was so unhappy with it I may return the book to them for a refund. Perhaps they were sincere, perhaps not. I decided to keep it as a lesson in terrible writing.

Antony B said...

I remember Terry Pratchett saying he switched german publishers because one of them inserted adverts into the middle of the books. Actually, I'll find the quote:

"There were a number of reasons for switching to Goldmann, but a deeply personal one for me was the way Heyne (in Sourcery, I think, although it may have been in other books) inserted a soup advert in the text ... a few black lines and then something like 'Around about now our heroes must be pretty hungry and what better than a nourishing bowl'... etc, etc.

My editor was pretty sick about it, but the company wouldn't promise not to do it again, so that made it very easy to leave them. They did it to Iain Banks, too, and apparently at a con he tore out the offending page and ate it. Without croutons."

Heidi the Hick said...

I'd like to comment on what Julie Weathers said previously.

If I read a book about modern day cowboys, and the author had them driving Toyota pickup trucks, I would STOP READING. Because I'd feel like the author did not do her homework.

(As for details like horse pedigrees, there are readers who wouldn't get it. However, those that do would be able to trust the author's knowledge.)

I don't think in a case like that, you can say it's Product Placement. It's not advertising. It's just getting it right. These are make or break details for some readers!

Spy Scribbler said...

Ranger's Bulgari gel! I did forget. I'm crazy about the stuff!

Even though I've never actually smelled it, LOL.

Seriously, though, I don't mind seeing a carton of Horizon milk in a movie, or seeing an Apple computer. I'd rather see "natural" product placement than be bombarded with spam and have to fast forward through commercials. As long as it works in the story, cool. If not, then not cool.

Lauren said...

When I read this article, I thought I'd be the only one who didn't cry "sell out!"

The thing is, people, real people, have brand loyalty. I get a triple venti from Starbucks everyday. My hubby gets Taco Bell every Tuesday for lunch with his co-workers. The guys who work for me drink Mountain Dew and eat Doritios most days. From those three lines, I'm sure you can draw inferences about the background of our lives and who we are.

The brands we use, places we shop and clothes we wear are part of who we are. As long as a skilled writer takes a brand that their charector would legitimately use, I think that it would enhance the charector. And if you are the first one to do it, probably land you in the papers. Free publicity is always awesome.

Too bad I write Epic Fantasy. No Starbucks!