Filthy Lucre

Some slightly stale rantage:

On Monday, Kate Rothwell mentioned how much she hates it when authors obsess too much over designer shoes. Then PBW mused on Tuesday about the possibility of product placement in novels. Reading over those two items, the first thing I thought was “Shit, Manolo Blahnnik and Prada should pay MaryJanice Davidson a mint for all the shilling she’s done for them.”

And my second thought was “UGH.”

Yes, product placement in novels is a great marketing opportunity and another way to generate revenue, but frankly, I live in a society already saturated with marketing messages and advertisements; the possibility of one of the few ad-free spaces in my life being actively taken over makes me want to cry.

Yes, novels aren’t entirely ad-free and haven’t been for ages. I own several Harlequin, Leisure and Zebra books with those cardboard book club advert inserts. The back pages are often dedicated to advertisements for other books and excerpts for upcoming books. The difference is, I can skip through those without a beat and without ever missing the story. When the product is mentioned within the story, I can’t avoid it.

Many contemporary novels of all sorts often mention specific brands and products during the course of the story, and like I mentioned in Kate’s blog, I think it often serves as convenient shorthand more than anything else. For example: A pair of white Nikes vs. a pair of white Keds vs. a pair of white sneakers all offer different mental images. And sometimes, items like these can even offer insights into characters. Think of a heroine whose favorite shoes are a pair of battered hot pink Converse All-Stars decorated with glittery Transformers stickers vs. a heroine who wears only high-end Nikes or Reeboks—if she bothers to wear sneakers at all—vs. a heroine who deliberately removes or defaces any obvious logos on her sneakers so you can’t tell what brand she’s wearing. Of course, one can omit the brand name entirely instead and spend a bit of time describing the footwear instead; more words may be expended, but I think this method is oftentimes much more effective than just shooting out the brand name. I mean, think of Min in Bet Me and her shoe fetish. I had a wonderfully concrete impression of all the shoes she wore, and to this day I can remember that the pair Cal gave her was white, fuzzy and featured a bunny face, while she owned a pair with fish on them and another pair that had cherries. I’m pretty positive no shoe designers were mentioned in that book. Betsy from Undead and Unwed? She wore Manolo Blahniks, and that’s about all I can remember.

Too much name-brand dropping can also become a distraction, and it assumes that the reader will get the reference. That’s not necessarily the worst part; a skilled author should be able to work the references in without making it too clunky. What bothers me the most is the compulsory nature of the deal. Just thinking about it makes my stomach ache. (NOTE TO SELF: May very well be the chili dogs I had for dinner talking.) Maybe I’m too much of an idealist when it comes to the notion of maintaining a certain amount of artistic integrity. And hey, I admit it’s also a lot easier for me to rabbit on about the importance of artistic integrity when I don’t make my living with my creative pursuits—I sell my soul other ways instead, mwaha. So I guess my paranoia right now centers around scenarios like this: what if Microsoft pays mega-bucks to an author to mention its products in a flattering light in a book featuring a hardcore computer geek, when many hardcore geeks would rather cut off their left nut than install anything Microsoft-related on their computers?

I mean, what if the heroine is really, TRULY a Coca-Cola girl in a Pepsi-sponsored novel?

Yes, questions like these really do keep me awake at night. And yes, in a very odd but very real way, I think there’s a substantive difference between an author choosing on her own free will to create a heroine obsessed with collecting Hello Kitty figurines vs. Sanrio paying the author money to make a previously Hello Kitty-free heroine into one who won’t rest easy until she has every Badtz Maru coffee mug ever created.

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Ranty McRant

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  1. 1
    beejay says:

    I’m with you on the characterization thing.  The Kate post just annoyed me because she seems to be missing the point.  Brands don’t matter to her, I guess, so she doesn’t have any patience for protags to whom they do matter.  But there’s a world out there where people live by the brands on their backs (or feet), and they do buy books.
    I think that was a big part of the massive jump on the chick lit bandwagon – it pulled in a whole bunch of new readers because it spoke to a whole new segment of the populace.
    Also, I remember one author mentioning that when her books were translated into Italian, the publisher okayed adding product placement to them.  Outrageous, you say?  Well, the company whose product was added paid big bucks for the privelege, which went into marketing in that country, and she even got a nice junket to Italy out of the deal. 
    I’m sure that’s not unique, either.  At first, I was appalled, then I figured if it didn’t change the story, then why the heck not, if it sells books???

  2. 2
    Lisa says:

    As far as my feelings on brands, I am semi-obsessed with fashion and thus I *can* picture what is being described, even though at some times I wonder at heroines’ boundless ability to afford high fashion and to carry it off with no hesitation…BUT, that being said, Manolo makes great heels, but everything from classics to wild sandals to couture boots, and if brands are being cited, I’d like it to serve more of a purpose than “Ooh look the heroine is cool and spends lots of money on shoes”. Granted, when given a choice between the ultra-high-waist jeans-and-blouses, or sweaters and “leggings” described in many seemingly stuck-in-the-80s contemporaries published in the ‘00s and the Manolo slides, I’ll take the Manolos, but there is a too-much-is-too-much component for even fashion admirers, IMO. And that point is reached when the heroine starts to seem like a walking commercial, brand-obsessed ultra-commodified icon of the corporate era. It also makes books seem current, but disposable – the repeated and annoying reference to Brands, Brands, Brands as a shorthand for “cool” or “chic” buy a little *too* much into brand-marketing for my taste.

    BTW, when the heroine obsesses overmuch about her brands, I always kind of picture her buying merchandise at outlet stores that doesn’t fit, is uncomfortable, and is unflattering, “BUT IT’S A VERA WANG GOWN! BUT THEY’RE CHOOS! BUT IT’S A GALLIANO JACKET!” And if she *admitted* it, it might be kind of endearing, but instead it seems more like a misguided scramble to have the Latest New Thing.

    Basically, as much as marketers want to create a brand identity that is so overwhelming that identity=brand, I like my heroes and heroines to be more than nearly-satirical icons of commercialism.

  3. 3
    Maili says:

    Too much name-brand dropping can also become a distraction, and it assumes that the reader will get the reference. That’s not necessarily the worst part; a skilled author should be able to work the references in without making it too clunky.

    Definitely! That is what makes Susan Elizabeth Philip’s THIS HEART OF MINE *so* irritating. And hypocritical because the heroine gave her entire trust fund away because she didn’t want to feel guilty for being rich, yet the author has her brand-dropping here, there and everywhere.

    On the other hand, sticking with just one brand can be equally irritating. Whenever I think of Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake, I think of Nike. Nike is mentioned every other page throughout first two or three books before I swore to myself that if I picked up another, I’m obliged to throw myself off the roof on the Nike building.

    Less is more, people! :)

  4. 4
    Irysangel says:

    No no, the absolute WORST product placement is Sherrilyn Kenyon pimping out her Kinley Macgregor books.

    Every single flippin’ heroine in her SK books is always reading the ‘latest hot Kinley Macgregor book’ complete with title and discussion about how great she is.

    Barf.  Make that double-barf.

  5. 5
    beejay says:

    Reminds me of this guy who writes under several different names and blurbs books under one name using one of his other names!  And all the names are right there on his site, so the whole freakin’ world can figure it out.  LOL!

  6. 6
    Sarah says:

    I think author-self-pimping, or author-title product placement, is so bizarre. Like how Clive Cussler writes himself into his Dirk Pitt novels as a character named “Clive Cussler” who saves the day in some obscure, MacGuyver manner.

    Product placement, however, doesn’t bother me, unless it’s reptitive to the point of egregious. Speaking (or writing) as someone who works in the upper east side of Manhattan, near the Bulgari, Cartier, Hermes, and Barney’s stores – labels do matter, and the difference between a chick who wears Manolos, Choo, and Cole Haan, and the chick who wears Liz Claiborne, DKNY, and Josef is a wide gulf of differentiation. All labels, but they mean different things.

    However, the quality of the label itself should have some bearing on its reptition. It’s like carring a bag that you can’t tell from inches away is a real Hermes, vs. carring a bag that has the big Fendi F stamped all over it in 72-point font. Beating the name brand mention into the ground, particularly if it is a super-high-end brand, makes it more about how the character can afford the brand, and therefore lowers the class & value factors, than if the character/author mentions it once and allows you to infer the real, and expensive, meaning.

  7. 7
    Candy says:

    Y’know, I’ve never encountered authors pimping their own books pseudonymously. Thank Gawd. I do remember Jude Deveraux briefly pimping a Judith McNaught novel in Sweet Liar, which I thought was funny and kind of sweet, since they’re buddies ‘n all.

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