How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Product Placement
Until recently I thought of product placement as the corporate sponsorship only of movies and television. In the past I, like many, railed against it as the destroyer of all things creative and I never would have seen product placement in books. It made me want to watch only the indiest of indie films. It made me want to make fun of people who wore corporate logos. During this time I didn’t have a television (of course I didn’t) so avoiding this kind of advertising wasn’t all that difficult.
Eventually my views grew more nuanced, especially as I ended up marrying someone with a TV and I grew to like a few shows. I started using a DVR and downloaded a bit more, too. This meant I saw fewer ads. Advertisers needed to find a way to get their messages in front of people; because (let’s face it) they aren’t going to go away. Placements are something that will continue to increase in frequency because of the way our viewing habits have changed. While I still don’t like it, I understand that there’s more to it than a simple sellout. There is the advertising issue I already mentioned, and – as distasteful as it is – it has become a standard part of raising funds in Hollywood for both television and movies.
Anyway, my uneasy truce with product placement carried on for a few years until I spotted some product placement in a book. “No,” I thought, “It can’t be. Not in a book.” As luck would have it, I was dead wrong.
Product placement can be ridiculously obvious and ham-handed. Season 1 of Heroes, anyone? I can never use enough brain bleach to remove the Nissan Versa advertising from my memory. I suppose it worked in the sense that I remember it; but, it gave me a bad association with the brand because it was so irritating. “Look! Not a scratch on the Versa!”
Really, Hiro? Really?
Of course movies are the granddaddy of product placement vehicles. It’s got a long history and has taken many forms from the nearly subliminal background image of a logo, to the end of the martini era for James Bond. I haven’t seen the Twilight movies either, but I’m told the “vampire drives a Volvo“.
And don’t get me started on Adam Sandler. I am appalled at how many people continue to pay to see his commercials. I mean movies.
A non-placement type of product integration happens when ad people and artists work together to create something new, and let’s make no mistake, good ad people are most definitely artists. Some examples of this are BMW’s The Hire series starring Clive Owen as The Driver, and Ubisoft’s Ghost Recon Alpha film by Academy Award-winning directors Herve & Francois.
Getting back to books, I’d always thought books were somehow sacred; however, with last year’s advent of the ad-supported Kindle I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be long before the sacredness wore off. Of course, I have always seen brands in novels, and I guess I can’t be sure, but it never seemed like it was actually a product placement so much as it was the way we speak. We probably all use brand names every day without thinking about it. There is a difference between “It was a shade of yellow in the Benjamin Moore catalogue…” and “It was a shade of yellow in the paint sample catalogue…” I am not sure whether one is better than the other, but I do know the first is almost certainly not a paid mention.
I’ve spotted things in major novels that made me wonder. I wasn’t able to think of any at this writing, but cursory searching shows plenty of examples: Dan Brown’s Pratt & Whitney and Lincoln Towncar (about which there has not been disclosure either way about payments) to the Fay Weldon’s Bulgari Connection to Apple and Ikea in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series (about which there has not been disclosure about payments, either). That’s the thing with books. It’s a relatively new concept and so far most people aren’t talking about it.
It seems like the worst offenders are, not surprisingly, teen romance novels. In “Consuming Desires: Consumption, Romance and Sexuality in Best-Selling Teen Romance Novels” by Naomi R. Johnson, her evidence suggests that these books are heavily-laden with products and that they explicitly point out how sexy and popular the character is. Check out this awkward monstrosity from American Beauty: An A-List Novel, “…every few seconds a gust of air would blow her vivid strawberry blond ringlets against her Bing My Cherry Plump Your Pucker lip-glossed mouth. A perfected flick of one OPI ballet-slipper-pink polished finger (French manicures were so last year) unstuck them… ” and that’s just part of a paragraph that goes on to mention Seven for All Mankind jeans and a Ferrari belt as well as an Ella Moss shirt, and the fact that this character has such amazing breasts that she doesn’t need a bra – because she’s had breast augmentation surgery. This (and Clique and Gossip Girl – all part of the same media group) is the “literary” equivalent of a fashion magazine – more ads than content, and where there’s content it’s kind of weak – and this targeted to girls 9-14.
I think we’re going to see more and more ads in books now that so many of us read them in digital form. I don’t just mean Kindle’s ad-supported version (which did seem to be a harbinger of some sort of advertising free-for-all,) but publishers’ increased ability to tailor each digital edition to include current brands instead of out-of-date ones, or to keep a spot or two in a novel up for periodic grabs like an outdoor billboard. There are also non-integrated ads on the rise that display information or a coupon anywhere in the book. I guess we just have to get used to it, or work harder to avoid it, though I can say with certainty that I won’t be buying an ad-supported ereader. Not to mention it’s only about $20 less than the regular one. It’s worth the $20 for many people to not have to deal with the ads.
Ads are always going to be around, and it seems as though brand integration like that mentioned above is going to continue to increase to keep pace with our TV- and movie-watching habits; and, now it seems our reading habits as well. In the renaissance artists were supported by wealthy patrons and today those wealthy patrons are corporate interests. In some ways it may be more forthright to have our current system than that old renaissance system, since we always know what the advertiser wants (a product to be featured and featured well).
Having recently watched The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, as flawed as it was, I gained appreciation for some of what an artist has to go through once funding is received. There were some really illuminating moments in that film and it’s worth watching if this topic interests you.
So did I learn to love produce placement? I understand it. I accept it. I may even use it someday for a client, and I am even sometimes fascinated by it; but, love it? Never.
(Originally published on http://www.elsewords.com.)