The push: product placement in fiction

A troubling new trend is emerging in publishing with companies paying for the placement and promotion of products in works of fiction. For instance, the latest thriller by bestselling British novelist William Boyd, The Vanishing Game, was commissioned by Land Rover, reportedly for a six-figure sum. Unsurprisingly, a vehicle prominently in the story, in which an unemployed actor takes a job as a courier driving a battered old Land Rover. According to the Guardian, Boyd has stated that writing the story was not difficult for him, since Land Rover had featured ‘prominently’ in his life and is an ‘icon of motor vehicle history’. The book is available free to download.

At the other end of the spectrum, Hillary Carlip’s new novel Find Me I’m Yours, features references to the artificial sweetener ‘Sweet N’ Low’. In the book, the main character, Mags, works for a bridal magazine in Los Angeles and references to the sweetener are made throughout. Troublingly, as the New York Times reports, Mags even makes some comments in the novel about the product’s lack of carcinogens and its endorsement by food regulators. Find Me I’m Yours isn’t a traditional novel, but a multi media project described as ‘Click Lit’, involving an e-book, specially-created websites and online videos. On the author’s website promoting the book there doesn’t appear to be any disclosure of the financial sponsorship offered by Cumberland Packing Corporation, which produces the sweetener.

Not all products featured in fiction are problematic. Brands can be used in subversive ways, or as a shorthand method of showing a character’s background by implication. In this year’s novel The Dog, by Joseph O’Neill, product names are used to demonstrate the protagonist’s attachment to the status items that tie him to his miserable job in Dubai. Audi, Ferrari, Jaguar, HSBC, and Park Hyatt, are all used in the book to evoke a particular milieu (although I take it that O’Neill invented the ‘Pasha Royale x400’, his protagonist’s favourite massage chair.) Presumably this is not the type of attention a brand would actively seek out.

Closer to home, Anna Funder has recently written a short story for the pearl company Paspaley. Funder notes that she was afforded complete creative freedom in the project, which is presumably the condition on which she agreed to become involved. The result is a beautifully lucid and surprisingly humorous examination of family life. The story doesn’t contain a single reference to pearls, although the book does include a series of photographs of the actress Teresa Palmer modeling them. Interestingly, the story is a departure for Funder from the tone of her previous two books Stasiland and All That I Am, which examine the effect on the individuals of living under oppressive regimes. The fact of the story being the product of a collaboration between Funder and Paspaley is disclosed in the e-book.

It’s difficult to disparage any writer for taking advantage of an opportunity to make money from their fiction, in an economic climate where advances are plummeting and writers increasingly struggle to make a living. It’s likely that only a scarce handful of authors will have a sufficiently large readership to find themselves in such a privileged position in any event. But there is still something that makes me ill-at-ease about using fiction as a vehicle for pushing consumer goods.

In the case of Funder and Boyd, the relationship between writer and product is disclosed and the fact of payment to the author is at least implicit. This seems to me to be a crucial point; at least if I know a brand is being promoted in a work I can either read with an awareness of that fact, or choose not to read it at all. Without that disclosure, it seems to me that there is the potential for the fiction to operate in problematic ways. Story-telling works through seduction; it draws you into its world and invites you to accept the unreal as real. It has, I think, an extraordinary power to encourage us to put our natural scepticism to one side in order to be caught up in its narrative sweep.

It’s not difficult to imagine the unseemly scenario in which brands pay for the promotion of their work in fiction but where the financial arrangement between publisher, author and brand remains undisclosed. In a climate where publishers are struggling to maintain profits and seeking new platforms in which to market their work, product placement may be an attractive proposition as an alternative source of funding. The New York Times suggested that the practice could usher in a new business model for publishers.

Yet, as Chris Hackley writes in  The Conversation, product placement seems to be a more apt fit for visual media than it does for the novel. In cinema and television, the boundaries have remained loose – it’s rarely clear whether a brand paid for the privilege of being visible, or whether the use of a particular product is incidental. If the model were adopted in novels, the author could essentially become a mouthpiece for the brand.

Perhaps product placement in certain types of fiction is inevitable. Advertising is insidiously everywhere and maybe it’s unsurprising that it should find its way to this new frontier. While part of me recoils at the idea of fending of products in books, I try to remind myself that without advertising most of the magazines and journals I read would cease to exist and I would likewise be unable to watch many the films I love if cinemas could not screen advertisements.

At the heart of my concern is that, for me, writing fiction has always been about attaining an authenticity I feel I am unable achieve in life. Advertising, on the other hand, is about the illusion of real. Call me old-fashioned, but I would like to live in a world that respects the difference between the two.

Gretchen Shirm

Gretchen Shirm is the author of a collection of short stories Having Cried Wolf and a novel Where the Light Falls. Her work has been shortlisted for a number of national awards including the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction in the NSW Premier’s Awards. She is currently working on a novel-in-stories titled The Crying Room.

More by Gretchen Shirm ›

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  1. not sure if it’s product placement, but THE WIZARD OF ID cartoons have been doing an awful lot of LORD OF THE RINGS gags in time for the release of the new HOBBIT film.

  2. Is any publicity really good publicity, I wonder? Writing saleable self-published novels where you slag off products may be the answer – and see if the respective companies try cuddling up to you or suing the pants off you. If the latter, start a movement, a genre of negative advertising. War on!

    1. *sigh*

      A war against what? Specific brand names or the general product?
      Divesting from a specific brand — BP, the “Big Four” banks — either does nothing or creates another corporate juggernaut. (It’s like the head of Adbusters choosing to drink Stolichnaya because its brandname is less visible than Absolut — which really happened!)
      Attacking a general product is pointless. Capitalism isn’t fizzy drinks or fast food or jewelry: it’s a system of producing and distributing these things.
      Without being interested in the actual economic relations, attacking a single brand or a single commodity is like “smashing” feudalism by killing one particular baronet.
      If anti-advertising was half as dangerous or subversive as Adbusters thinks, then it’s a miracle Mad Magazine has been allowed to operate for over 60 years…

  3. I take the opposite viewpoint to this piece.
    For me, it’s unnatural to draw a boundary between the falsity of commercial advertising and the “authenticity” of so-called legitimate art. Is it wrong for a fiction writer to aim for pure illusionism? That would discount a lot of great genre novels and imaginative works.
    And it’s hard to say that advertising flat-out isn’t art. Is photography an artform? Or typography? Or painting? (Impressionism might be dead today if it wasn’t for a talented crop of young fashion illustrators.)
    Even if Norman Rockwell was too kitsch to fit some people’s definition of an artist, the same can’t be said for Toulouse-Lautrec or Alphonse Mucha, who both did commercial posters.
    Sure, it’s propaganda! But nobody said propaganda couldn’t be artistic: it’s possible to appreciate Eisenstein and Riefenstahl without sympathising with Stalinism or Nazism. Walt Disney’s wartime cartoons are some of his finest work.

    Yes, it’s easy to bash brand names and logos and pretend books like American Psycho are profound critiques of capitalism. At the same time, it can become juvenile quickly: musicians bickering about whether certain forms of music are “indie” or “real” enough, or whether X has “sold out” and “gone commercial.” (The assumption is that for something to be artistic, it has to be unprofitable and “misunderstood.”)

    If product placement in a fictional work is shilling, it’s a very minor, innocent form of shilling. When a journalist or another figure of trust takes money under the table, it’s infinitely worse. We read journalism for facts rather than entertainment. (…whereas it’s Frankfurt School high-culture snobbery to believe that plebs are easily hypnotised by movies or airplane thrillers and can’t see their unreality.)

    Also, there are plenty of novels where brand names appear as neutral details without any particular didacticism. Meanwhile, films often have a props department that consciously chooses the objects on a set, even if they’re not product placements.
    Do processed foods ever exist in a truly generic form without a brand? Some movies, like “Repo Man,” have gone for a deliberate lack of product placement — cans and bottles simply reading ‘BEER’ and ‘FOOD.’ But that’s the opposite of naturalism or “authenticity”. It’s Brechtian staging.
    In fact, any sort of minute attention to brand names has a feeling of unreality about it — whether it’s namedropping them incessantly or erasing them completely. That’s neither good nor bad, but I don’t think there’s really a difference between film and literature in that regard.
    What makes literature sacrosanct while movies are fair game?

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