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Product Placement in Books--What Do You Think?
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
November 2014
Written by
Kamy Wicoff
November 2014

This is less a blog post than an invitation to a discussion--a salon online, if you will. Imagine we are all gathered around a long candlelit dinner table together, or reclining on chaises in my Parisian living room. (You will definitely have to use your imagination, since my kitchen table is only big enough for four and I live in Brooklyn.) Imagine I then produce, with dramatic flair, the Arts Section of Monday's New York Times. Our topic for the evening? The article on a new multimedia e-book project called "Find Me I'm Yours," and the 1.3 million dollar corporate sponsorship it got from Cumberland Packing, the company that makes Sweet "N Low. The heroine of the novel loves...you guessed it...Sweet "N Low. Supposedly she loved it before the author and the company packaging her book (which is doing a lot of interesting things on the multimedia front) made the deal with Cumberland. But once the deal was done, a scene was added where the character in question sites studies showing that Sweet 'N Low is not, in fact, bad for you after all.

To kick off the discussion...

On the one hand, musicians, filmmakers and television producers do this ALL the time, and in a world where authors are struggling mightily to fund their projects and the years of work they take to produce, this could be a (relatively??) harmless, innovative way to support their efforts. Are writers just late to the product-placement party, and now it's time to jump on board? 

On the other hand, if writers start writing with corporate sponsorships in mind, will the integrity of their work suffer? (Has that happened in TV or film?) Does it matter if the book gets written first and then the author or her agent pursues a sponsorship deal, or if the sponsorship deal is in place from the get-go?

All right, brilliant women of my salon. What do you think? Wave of the future, or sign of the apocalypse?

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  • Toi Thomas

    I hadn't even considered the possibility that the publisher could be solely responsible for the product placement. That's just wicked and hope it's not the case. The idea of that bothers me more than the product placement. The idea that publishers could and would do that to an author's work. 

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    And Toi I completely agree about having companies sponsor a book tour or even a book's publication, with the stipulation that they don't have any input into the content. I am going to do my book party at Rebecca Taylor in the meatpacking in NYC in April, and they are sponsoring the party and giving any proceeds they make from sales that night to the charity I'm involved with, Girls Write Now. I'm also looking into doing something with Omni Hotels because one of my best friends is VP of Marketing there. But I only made these arrangements and started having these conversations after EVERY WORD of the book was done, inked, non negotiable.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Oh my gosh Rachel that is so fascinating and so incredibly germane to this! I loved this bit about the full-page ads in pulp paperbacks: "It was a windfall for everyone — everyone, that is, except the authors. 'Authors were horrified by these ads,' Paul Aiken, the executive director of the Authors Guild, said in a recent interview, adding jokingly, 'And doubly horrified that they weren’t paid for them.'" The big thing being that AUTHORS did not get paid, just publishers. I wonder what the author got out of the arrangement with Sweet 'N Low, versus the publisher. What would be really horrifying is if publishers did this without the author's consent once they bought a book, and the author would be powerless to say no or alternatively to benefit from it.

  • Philippa Anne Rees

    Unfortunately none of my characters are into 'things' but the odd addiction to cannabis might be implied (though not stated- nor 'manufactured) so product placement would be a form of literary prostitution. But if I were to write chicklit a mention of Laboutin shoes would not (though I hope I would be more subtle). Yet all this seems dependent on being likely to sell!

  • Connie Hertzberg Mayo

    Rachel, LOVE that link.  Very relevant to this discussion.

  • Toi Thomas

    It's one thing to have designated ad space in publications that traditionally have it, but to add products into a story to make extra money seems low. It drives me crazy just how blatant product placement has become in some movies and TV shows, but I guess I've gotten used to it. I don't like it, but I'd probably get used to it if it started showing up in the majority of the books I read.

    I get it that people do what they have to in order to play their bills, but I guess that's why I'll always struggle a bit. 

    I wouldn't have a problem with a company sponoring an author in exchange for promotion for say: their book tour, blog tour, and other appearances related to that work. That could actually be benefical to both parties without weakening the integrity of story. They would essentially become a spokesperson and their book could be their vehicle to promote their books and the company's platform. This has been done before for charities.

    Paid sponsorship is one thing, but product placement just comes off as shady. 

  • Rachel E. Pollock Revising

    Regarding Pamela Olson's comment, does anyone recall those full color ads that would appear in the middle of mass-market pulp paperbacks in the 1970s? I saw them in books i found in secondhand bookstores in the mid/late 1980s, and it wasn't common, but i do remember them. Like the ones in this article:


  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    What we all really need is Thoreau's mother to do our laundry. Aka a patron/muse who sponsors our content! Interesting idea, Pamela, about putting an ad in a book rather than messing with the story. Newspapers always had such a bright line between advertising and editorial and I feel like even that has gotten blurrier...

  • Pamela Olson

    My gut feeling is that I would rather wait tables to support my writing habit (waiting tables can be kinda fun, actually -- it was my first job in New York) than take money off some crap chemical company and shill for them. I don't think I could stomach it. Imagine if Thoreau had taken money from a timber company while he was writing Walden. I'm sure I'm no Thoreau, but still... it rubs me deeply wrong.

    If one really needed sponsorship to keep going, I'd rather have an out-and-out commercial in the middle of the book, like with TV. At least then there's no question it's sponsored content. But I guess it'd be pretty easy to skip over...

  • Nina Angela McKissock

    Oh, I could have a heyday with the pharmaceutical and durable medical equipment companies, alternative treatment products and funeral planners! I dislike when someone practices demagoguery, but I'd like to see how much control we'd have to give up.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I agree Connie -- and Arlo good point about Oprah, that's so interesting. The perception is that she's an independent actor but of course she is a corporation, too, and benefits from her status as a literary king/queen-maker. But of course she doesn't directly benefit financially when a book she recommends does well. And Sydney I read like you--I'm very sensitive to when something seems off, and certainly that Sweet 'N Low scene would stick out like a sore thumb to me!

  • Connie Hertzberg Mayo

    Having a sponsor seems like an individual choice with no right or wrong.  I'd like to say it probably wouldn't be for me, but really, you never know until you are presented with a specific situation - and a specific sponsor.  Compromising, changing or augmenting the narrative to please a sponsor, however, seems like a red line that would be hard to defend crossing.

  • Arlo Hennings

    "The Times They Are a Changin" - Bob Dylan sang those prophetic words and a generation followed with a new perspective. Recently, I heard it as the soundtrack for a tire commercial. Are we a sold out culture? Willing to do anything to get read or heard? This issue is more dramatically noticeable in music than literature, but as the bean counters tighten the belt, and readership shrinking, I can see Corporate sponsors taking the stage behind a book. It is after all "media." When OPRAH gets behind a book isn't that the same as a "Corporation?" I think its inevitable that product placement will find its way to books too.

  • Sydney Matheson Avey

    Thanks for bringing this to our attention, Kamy. I'm going to approach this from the reader experience view. When I see a product logo on the screen it does take me out of the story for a nanosecond. I think "Oh, clever product placement." If dialogue accompanied the visual that seemed out of place, I would be annoyed. If that is not the reaction the director was going for, we would have a disconnect. These days, I feel assaulted by marketing messages. The example you cited, inserting an apologetic for a controversial product, seems artificial (pardon the pun) and manipulative. In the context in which it is presented it is bad writing. It does not move the story along or contribute to a better understanding of the character. Is the author really trying to show us that the character is diligent about researching the health risks in what she puts in her mouth? There may be readers who will hardly notice or care that they are being sold. I'm not one. But I'm probably in the minority.

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    This made me think of something...I used to work in television, as a producer, and I made a piece of "branded content" with Intel as the sponsor. It was a short segment called "Get Computer Smart," and it was for kids going to college to help them make decisions about what kind of computer they might need. But because Apple didn't use Intel processors, they forbid any mention of Apple products! I was totally outraged (fresh off a few years doing news) and threatened to quit. But they didn't care, and I gave in. I was twenty-four and really needed the money. That kind of thing is worrisome...novels it's a little less of an issue, but with nonfiction there would be a clear and major problem. And it is a problem with newspapers/magazines/TV news already...

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    Good point about the quality Anne -- it won't support a writer to place a product in a book that isn't GOOD, or doesn't ring true and seem authentic to its readers. This would only work as a revenue stream for writers if those criteria were met, which at least supports the idea of quality in the work. The story about the Sweet 'N Low woman adding the scene with the research really creeps me out though.

  • Anne Briggs Buzzini

    I agree with Rachel E Pollack: So, for me i think it depends on the nature of the placement desired, and how much i'd have to compromise the narrative. I'm never going to compromise the narrative, but i'd consider brand visibility options if it dovetailed with my artistic vision.

    I'm all for writers making more money. The product placement isn't going to make the book better. In the long run, the books will need to be of at least average quality for the companies to be interested in paying for placement. Companies generally don't throw away money.  

  • The idea of sponsorships is not so awful to me.  Concerts are sponsored. Arena's are sponsored. Ballet Companies are sponsored - why not books? The author has be adept at it, though, and be able to incorporate into a story seamlessly. If it's forced into a storyline, it comes off as very crass.

    This seems like a way for authors to actually make some money. I would do it.

    The question I have is about the return that the company is getting for over a million dollars of investment!   I mean, this is not John Grisham we are talking about. It's a little-known author. It seems like the money was more about investing in developing the technology of her company, not in the book itself.

  • Connie Hertzberg Mayo

    For me, if a writer mentions Prada or Carlsberg because they wanted to, they thought of it, that isn't what I think of as product placement.  Maybe "brand mentioning" or something.  Or maybe that's just called "writing".  For Rachel's film and her Victoria Secret example, I would have done the same thing - you needed nice underwear, VS is nice underwear.  Even if there had been one of the distinctive looking VS tiny shopping bags lying around, I still think that's great - if the idea was that the woman should have been wearing nice underwear, the shopping bag is completely in line with the artists idea of that scene - not like they rewrote the scene.  But to add a scene in the Sweet N Low book that discusses a study on how Sweet N Low ain't that bad?  AFTER inking a deal?  Horrifying.  Reminds me of a scene from the Simpsons where Oscar Meyer has given money to Bart's school in exchange for product promotion, and they walk by a classroom studying the periodic chart, and a kid says, "What's Bolognium?".  (Or maybe it's spelled "Balonium".)

  • Liz Gelb-O\'Connor

    As a marketer, I love product placement and do it because I love fashion and in turn, so do my characters. Christian Louboutin, Prada, Doir, it's in there. However, editors have questioned my use of name brands - saying it dated things, blah-blah-blah. I grew up on Jackie Collins novels brimming with fashion and brands. It gave me a new lens in which to page through VOGUE. Personally, I love them and use them as I see fit. Now... if I could only get Prada to sponsor me :-)

  • Philippa Anne Rees

    It's an interesting debate because it highlights that writers are considered the last bastion of virtuous integrity, and the starving garret their rightful abode. If there can be ghost writers who make their celebrity subject sound cleverer, wittier and more diverse than they actually are, the insertion of a brand of cornflakes or coffee seems pretty small beer ( mine's Carlsberg). Readers are extraordinarily perceptive and product placement out of place will leap from the page or choke the character to death. Slid in imperceptibly, if it gives the writer room to breathe, is a small concession. I wish I had thought of it.

  • Sue Y Wang

    As also an energy healer, I wonder about the energy an author brings in to her work/book when sponsored products are involved. To keep an open mind, if the product complements the work, it might be ok... That said, sponsorship should not affect what we write unless we are hired to write for that sponsor. I agree with the others -integrity is vital and readers are discerning.  

  • Kamy Wicoff Brainstorming

    I love these comments too--Rachel I think you get it spot-on. Writers do need to find other ways to get paid, but not at the expense of the integrity of their art.

  • Dee Connell

    I heard about this today in a podcast and I found it very interesting. When someone chooses to be a writer, they haven't signed up for the Starving Artists Guild. I think the more we approach our creative work as a business, the more satisfied we'll be in the long run. Like any business, you should keep your integrity, but that doesn't mean you don't partner with anyone; it means you choose carefully what you do with your partnerships. I love what Rachel E. Pollock said here about it not being an obvious product placement--people can smell that a mile away. But if a character loves a product, it is a form of advertising, and it's nice if writers are compensated for it. The key is always that the reader should be the focus and your business shouldn't interfere with them enjoying your book. If I could promote Kindles in my WIP, I would... but it's a historical :)

  • Rachel E. Pollock Revising

    I don't have any experience with product placement in novels, but i do have it with film (my "day job" is professional costumer, and i've worked on films/tv shows that had it). In those instances, for me it was always about whether i thought i could integrate the product seamlessly into the costuming of the scene, or would it stand out as an obvious product placement.

    For example, on one film i worked on, there were two scenes where actresses were filmed in their underwear. Victoria's Secret wanted product placement with us, and all that mattered to me was that one character's underwear was "racier" in style and brighter in color than the other's, so i picked out underwear from the samples provided, and we used them. There were no gratuitous close-ups on the labels or anything, and nobody added lines about loving their VS panties. I think if VS had wanted that, we wouldn't have gone with it, because i had plenty of money to buy panties, but if i could get them free, i could use my budget elsewhere.

    If i think about it in literary terms, in my current novel, there's a scene where two characters drink a bottle of Absolut vodka. To me, all that's important is that the brand of vodka be something that's not bottom-shelf brand, so if my publisher wanted to reach out to both Absolut and Grey Goose, and see if either one wanted to pay for product placement? I'd be fine with that. If i had to rewrite the scene to where those characters extol the virtues of the brand in conversation, i wouldn't, because those characters never WOULD do that.

    So, for me i think it depends on the nature of the placement desired, and how much i'd have to compromise the narrative. I'm never going to compromise the narrative, but i'd consider brand visibility options if it dovetailed with my artistic vision.