A very recent young adult novel (which I have not read, and which is not important for this blog, so I am not going to mention it) has sparked considerable debate about product placement in novels. According to Publishers Weekly, the novel helps to promote a cosmetics product that is popular with young girls, and the cosmetics company has thrown some serious marketing dollars behind the book. The author is reportedly very excited about the arrangement.
We’ve seen it for years in movies—the soda can on the table, the billboard in the background, the logos on the shirts. It’s all over reality television (do Simon, Paula and that other guy on American Idol ever really drink from those Coke glasses that are fixtures on the table in front of them?)
Books certainly have the power to sell products. It’s been over a decade since I read Grisham’s novel The Firm, but I can’t even mention that book without craving a Red Stripe beer. Of course, Grisham didn’t take money to have his characters drink Red Stripe. It was all part of the Caribbean Island experience.
Occasionally I get e mails from readers who don’t seem to care if the author has taken money or not. Or, they assume that because an author mentions a product that he is in fact getting paid to mention it. I once had a reader tell me that he closed the book and would never by another one of my novels after reading in Chapter 2 that my character was drinking a Diet Coke. I should have written “diet soda.”
Let me say for the record that I’m against product placement in novels—at least to the extent that it means an author is getting paid to put it in the novel. But I’m not against mentioning products in novels. If I write that a guy got out of his car and put on his black jacket, does that tell the reader as much about the character as a guy who steps out of his Porsche and puts on his Armani jacket? Do you know as much about the character who got dressed and went shopping as the woman who put on her Chanel suit and didn’t even bother to check the price tags at Hermes?
And what about restaurants? I have lots of favorite ones in Miami, and from what I hear from readers, they like the local flavor. But for people who insist that my characters should drink only “diet soda,” do I have to make up nonexistent restaurants? Or is it OK to have Jack Swyteck like the same places in Miami that I like? Maybe a better question: If I go to that restaurant after the book comes out, is it unethical for me to accept a free glass of wine from the appreciative owner? A free meal? A 10% ownership interest in the establishment? (NOTE: I do always make up the restaurant if something bad happens there, like murder or heartburn).
There's also a humorous component to brand names. Dave Barry, for example, seems partial to Buicks, as in: The president spoke eloquently to a group of dignitaries, unaware of the fact that he had a booger hanging from his nose the size of a Buick. Is it really just as funny if it's the size of a "car"?
But maybe the reader who complained about Diet Coke had a point. There are many people who would probably argue that you can tell a lot about someone who drinks Diet Coke as opposed to Diet Pepsi, but maybe in some circumstances it’s enough to say “diet soda.” I don’t know the answer to that one. I do know, however, that if Pepsi or Coca Cola Company is paying me to have my characters drink their product, then my characters no longer have a life of their own. They are defined by forces outside the world in which they exist. And why would I want to screw up THAT world?
Red Stripe, anyone? Cheers.