October 17, 2014

A short history of branded books and product placement in literature


Last Friday there was a flutter of literary drama over on Twitter when a Contently writer used Zadie Smith‘s New York Review of Books essay to gush over a missed subtle advertising opportunity. Smith’s essay mentioned a beer ad in order to discuss a particularly New York attitude: the dogged search for happiness, and the ruthlessness with which locals seek self-improvement, usually via consumption of some kind (i.e. $7 juice intended as a meal (?), paramilitary workouts, shopping for good causes).  The Contently post outs the brand Smith is referencing, and points out how creepily close brands lurk to our pre-conscience:

It must be noted that Smith never actually mentions Corona, writing only that the object of her essay is an ad for beer. But, so what? You can watch three episodes of Chipotle’s “Farmed and Dangerous” series without hearing the word “Chipotle.” And The New York Times’ piece about women inmates, sponsored by Netflix, only mentions Orange Is the New Black once.

The response from the NYRB?



Electric Literature responded with a WHAT IF your favorite books included ads. But what books really do include product placements? So far these are anomalies, but who knows what the e-pub future holds:

1, “Let it be mud,” cried Fay Weldon, of her good name and literary reputation, before she signed the first ever commissioned product placement deal in publishing history. Italian jewelry company Bulgari paid Weldon an undisclosed amount to prominently feature their wares (at least 12 mentions, said the contract) in a novel that came out aptly titled, The Bulgari Connection. No points for subtlety here. For the launch Weldon wore over $1.5 million worth of jewelry. First commissioned as a “gift” for the companies’ insiders, writer, agent, and publisher were so thrilled with the book they took it commercial.

2. YA has been the target of the most prominent product placement campaigns I could google. More specifically the very specific type of YA marketed to girls not yet old enough to read The Devil Wears Prada. According to The New York Times, around 2006 CoverGirl had a deal with Running Press, a unit of Perseus Book Group that published Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233 to feature their line of Lipslicks lipgloss. Neither author nor publisher were paid for the mention of the protagonist wearing “a killer coat of Lipslicks in ‘Daring,” but in return Proctor & Gamble (owners of CoverGirl) promoted the book on a entertainment website targeting teen girls.

3. “Children will love to count down as ten little OREOs are dunked, nibbled, and stacked one by one…until there are none!” Hide yer kids.

4. Not even our superheros are safe from the cheesiest of product placements (and we’re not even talking about the movie versions!)

5. And of course there is the ever looming threat of what will happen with e-book ads, and if an ad-free future is even possible.

I’ll leave you with this: an Estee Lauder beauty products makeover party/book launch from the makers writers of The Nanny Diaries!  Coming soon to a mall near you.