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Q: Have Product Placement Deals Ever Found Their Way Into Novels?

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A: Sure, we’ve all seen less than subtle product placement on the big screen. The lead character finding his fiancée while chatting on AOL, a couple serendipitously bumping into one another at a Starbucks, a ball player getting that extra ounce of energy from the last sip of his Coke.

For the most part, that sort of underhanded advertising has been relegated to film, right? Well, in 2001, literary types were shocked to discover that author Fay Weldon’s latest novel, The Bulgari Connection, had more than just a titular connection to the jewelry manufacturer. Bulgari had, in fact, paid Weldon to write it. That explains the dozens of sensual descriptions of their products found within (“it was a sleek modern piece … the mount following the irregular contours of the thin worn bronze”), but not why a respectable, Booker prize-nominated writer would accept such a payoff.

In her defense, a defiant Weldon said, “I don’t care. They never gave me the Booker prize anyway!” Having earned so much critical condemnation, she’s unlikely to get one now.

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  • http://robertkblechman.blogspot.com Robert K. Blechman

    The trend in advertising toward a ubiquitous presence in our lives is a natural outgrowth of the mythologic function of advertising. As advertising becomes truly ubiquitous, and therefore environmental, and before it becomes completely invisible to the average eye, it is a fitting focus for students of Media Ecology. The question one might asked is why the total penetration of advertising into all venues is considered an imposition. If advertising is our culture’s mythology, as I have claimed, why is it perceived as an annoyance?

    Reason #1: Due to a misunderstanding of its true nature and impact, to date advertising has been segregated in minutes between programming or spaces in magazines and newspapers. We find advertising annoying because it interrupts our stories, sporting events and news reports. That will change with product placement supplementing and then replacing separate commercial breaks (Think “The Truman Show”).

    Reason #2: The structure of current advertising is (sometimes) warped by a corporate agenda. Sometimes the conscious attempts by corporate advertisers to bend the message to fit their agenda works against the underlying mythology. This gets our attention, but is also disquieting. Some things just won’t work in our current culture. Imagine an ad that tries to convince men to start wearing makeup. What aspects of our current conception of sexual roles would need to change for this to become a reality? Would Avon or Maybelline be willing to take this on to increase profits? What other factors would work against this? The point is that corporation advertising must operate within certain pre-determined structural boundaries to be successful. Sometimes corporations try to push that envelope and it doesn’t work.

    Reason #3: We haven’t yet become numb to its influence. As advertising changes our culture, we adopt new “corporate” identities. We already proudly display corporate logos on our clothing and artifacts. We gain parts of our personal self-image and identity by assimilating corporate images and icons. (In Supersize Me there is a scene where children more readily identify Ronald McDonald than George Washington or Jesus Christ.) Identity change is an uncomfortable process, and as Marshall McLuhan pointed out, can lead to things like social uprisings and war.

  • Dr Dreadful

    Stephen King does it all the time. In his case, it’s probably a striving for verisimilitude in his depictions of pop culture, rather than deliberate product placement, but sometimes it gets in the way. For example, there’s a scene (I think it’s in “Christine”) where a plane flies overhead and a character casually notes that it is a US Airways jet. It has nothing to do with the plot, the character is not an airplane nerd and in real life, along with most of the rest of us, would not have registered what airline the plane belonged to. It jars and distracts the reader from the momentum of the story.

  • http://iamrazorwing.livejournal.com Matt

    If advertising is our culture’s mythology, as I have claimed,

    Which is a mighty big “if,” wouldn’t you say? I don’t have much intention of opening that can of worms, but I’m sure there are as many people who’d agree with you as disagree on that very premise (and thus, free to reject any ideas that use that as the foundation).

  • Joel

    How is product placement “underhanded”? The entire premise is flawed.

  • http://musical-guru.blogspot.com/ Michael J. West

    I’ll open that can of worms, Matt. The notion that “advertising is our culture’s mythology” is half-baked, ludicrous, and pretentious.

    In a word: horseshit.