Books on the Nightstand discussion

Product placement in fiction?

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message 1: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Dicks (matthewdicks) | 33 comments I have a question that I wanted to pose to the group (I hope this is the right folder), if you don't mind. I was recently asked at a reading if I had ever considered product placement opportunities in my fiction, and I was actually accused of already having made product placement deals with my previous book, SOMETHING MISSING. I wrote a post about it here:

I've been thinking about the issue a lot today and would love some feedback. If you have a moment, please read the post and let me know your thoughts. I'm very curious what readers would think about the possibility of product placement in fiction.

Many thanks!

Matthew Dicks
Read about my writing career and life at
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message 2: by Sandi (new)

Sandi (sandikal) | 89 comments I think one of the reasons authors tend to avoid brand names in their writing is that there are some rules that are supposed to be followed, like capitalization and the use of a trademark symbol. For example, a cola should not be called coke. It's Coke with the trademark symbol. (Sorry, I don't know how to type that one online.) A tissue isn't a kleenex, it's a Kleenex with the trademark symbol. Once you start doing that, it does start looking like advertising.

I recently listened to Time Travelers Never Die by Jack McDevitt. The time travel device apparently looked like an iPod, but they kept saying qPod. He did something similar with the Blackberry and called it by the name of some other berry. It was funny because you could tell what he was talking about even if he didn't say it.

message 3: by [deleted user] (new)

There's something kinda ironic about placing a link about product placement into a post that will drive readers to your blog :-)

message 4: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Dicks (matthewdicks) | 33 comments It's true, but there's no advertising on my blog and I'm not making any money by driving readers there. I was going to cut and paste the post here but thought that would be even more obnoxious.

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

In the past, I have not had any problem with brand names showing up in a story. Often, it's creates a specific detail that adds to the setting (i.e. Dr. Nuts, Dr. Peppers and various liquors in James Lee Burke's Robicheaux series.) And to be honest, I didn't notice it in the Millennium series overmuch (except for repeated references to Ikea itself;) but since it has been brought to my attention, the product placement in Stieg Larrson's books does bother me. It is because I know that SL's father and brother, in collusion with an editor, changed a few things in the novels (like the name of the doctor) when the works were translated. Now I wonder if they added in the Ikea references also and if they aren't getting some additional income from that. Now I'm suspicious.

I don't like the idea of product placement because it makes me feel like I'm being manipulated. I work very hard to limit Madison Avenue's influence in my life and if I felt that they had gotten their hooks into an author, I would abandon that author. It's just that simple. There are plenty of Classics I have yet to enjoy. I don't need to subject myself to a writer who has sold out.

message 6: by Esther (last edited Aug 27, 2010 01:37AM) (new)

Esther (eshchory) As a non-American all brand name references on TV, film or in books is a PITA.
It simply obscures the reference and if I really want to understand which product they are talking about I have to Google it.

I think Ikea has conquered the world so recognition is not a problem and anyway it always makes me smile and think of Jonathan Coulton (music-Youtube).

message 7: by Eric (new)

Eric | 1175 comments Mod
Stephen King used to mention brand names in his earlier fiction. I never saw this as something that was bought and paid for, but simply something that anchored the weird supernatural events he was writing about to the prosaic real world.I think mentioning product names, when appropriate, lends verisimilitude.

message 8: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Dicks (matthewdicks) | 33 comments Interesting. I didn't realize product placement was an American phenomenon.

While I don;t exactly enjoy product placement in television, I often wonder if I am being spared a commercial or two because of it. Of course, now that I time-shift all my television, an extra commercial or two wouldn't matter, since I just skip them anyway.

It also hadn't occurred to be that the use of a brand name might impact the international audience's ability to discern the work. My book is doing well in Germany, and I wonder if the specific brand names are a hindrance to the German reader.

message 9: by Lauren (new)

Lauren (lrc123) | 7 comments *Snort* I read books in the genre of Gossip Girl on a regular basis, and in those books product placement is practically a requirement. So as used to it as i am, product placement doesn't really bother me. Did you ever hear of the book, The Bulgari Connection by Fey Weldon? She was paid 18,000 British pounds by Bulgari and she then had to mention the name of Bulgari (a very famous Italian luxury jeweler) a minimum of 12 times in the book. Now that is pretty crazy. On a side note, i have Something Missing on my TBR and am looking forward to delving into it soon. Your premise just sounds so fascinating.

message 10: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Dicks (matthewdicks) | 33 comments I agree. That's nuts. The need to mention the jeweler twelve times must have been weighing on her mind the entire time that she was writing.

My thoughts on product placement center on two things:

1. Increasing revenue streams for publishers and authors, which I think will be critical in the new economic climate.

2. Taking advantage of organic opportunities to utilize product placement.

So to be required to use a name twelve times seems absurd, it seem much more reasonable for my publisher or agent to approach a jelly company, seeking a deal, if I know my book already requires the use of a specific brand of jelly. When the choice of brand doesn't matter and the product already exists an an integral part of the story, it seems like an obvious marriage of fiction and adverting.

Then again, I can also see where the attempts to use organic opportunities could quickly lead an author down a slippery and rather ugly slope.

I remain conflicted.

message 11: by Usako (new)

Usako (bbmeltdown) | 5 comments It isn't necessarily an American thing. For those who have read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and the next two books are introduced to the product placement of Apple Products.

In fashion books, name brands do get mentioned. That's expected.

So if it makes sense, use it. Otherwise, don't be *AS* obnoxious as Wayne's World parodied product placement :)

message 12: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Dicks (matthewdicks) | 33 comments Tanja,
Was the product placement in those books paid for by Apple, or was this simply a result of Larsson's potentially obsessive use of detail? I can't imagine that Apple paid for product placement in that book, especially since so much of the technology was 5-10 years old.

message 13: by Usako (new)

Usako (bbmeltdown) | 5 comments My book club joked that the author must have been obssessed with Apple or it was a Swedish popular item but, truthfully, we've no idea WHY it's heavily featured. The author died so no one can ask. I haven't researched too deep on the internet if any sites have figured it out. Reviewers have said either it was a devotion or product placement.

message 14: by Ann (new)

Ann (akingman) | 2097 comments Mod
I think that Apple represents (or at least represented when the books were written) a kind of sub-culture. It's the whole "I'm a PC" "I'm a Mac" thing. Apple users are cool, hip and a little off-beat; PC users are stodgy, traditional and definitively uncool. At least, that's my take on it.

And that's actually the perfect reason to use brand names; it relates cultural value that might not otherwise be evident. If one of Matthew's characters used Whole Foods grape jelly, it would give me a different picture from the one who used Smuckers. The downside of this, of course, is that that cultural frame of reference may be short-lived, and leave readers in the future scratching their heads. But if it's a sustainable brand, it can work really well. A character in Barbara Kingsolver's book referred to "Breck shampoo." It was perfect, because the book was set in the 60s and I remember the Breck commercials from my childhood, and the image of the woman who was the "Breck girl." It allowed Kingsolver to say in very few words what would have taken paragraphs. HOwever, if my kids read Poisonwood Bible when they're older, that reference will go right over their head -- but they probably won't even notice. It likely won't be instrusive at all.

That doesn't answer Matthew's question. I'm still mulling that one over.

message 15: by Ann (last edited Aug 27, 2010 12:58PM) (new)

Ann (akingman) | 2097 comments Mod
(Oh, and I created a new folder called "General Discussion" and moved this over there.)

Actually, we already had a "general" - I guess if you don't specify a folder, it goes into there. So that's where I moved it.

message 16: by Esther (new)

Esther (eshchory) Ann wrote: "I think that Apple represents (or at least represented when the books were written) a kind of sub-culture. It's the whole "I'm a PC" "I'm a Mac" thing. Apple users are cool, hip and a little off-be..."

I was also sure this was the reason he referenced Apple so much.

A big deal was made about product placemanet in the Casino Royal Bond film but to be honest I hardly noticed.

Chick-lit can be really annoying due to the amount of designer clothing mentioned. Peronally I couldn't care if she was wearing Jimmy Choo's or shoes bought in Marks & Spencer's summer sale but obviously to some people it is important!

message 17: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Dicks (matthewdicks) | 33 comments I'm still wondering:

Are the mentions in chick-lit done for specificity reasons, or are the authors and/or publishers being paid for the mention? And does this even matter?

message 18: by Linda (new)

Linda | 2752 comments Mod
Ann wrote: "I think that Apple represents (or at least represented when the books were written) a kind of sub-culture. It's the whole "I'm a PC" "I'm a Mac" thing. Apple users are cool, hip and a little off-be..."

Thanks, Ann! I knew I was cool! Now I have verification!

I think about the "product placement" of Breakfast at Tiffany's. And a lot of Where the Heart Is takes place in WalMart.

Knowing my own personality Coke® drinking (on my Apple it's option R), Apple using, Plymouth-Dodge driving, Puff® using life - those are things that don't change. If I were writing a character like me, those would be important to note.

I, on the other hand have no names in my clothing that anyone else cares about - especially in shoes where if the shoe fits (11-1/2 AAA) I wear it!

My husband, on the other hand, prefers Coca Cola® but will drink any cola. I won't. If I were writing about him, he would have a cola.

Does that register appropriately?

message 19: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Dicks (matthewdicks) | 33 comments Thanks for the move, Ann. I couldn't figure out how to move the folder into the general folder.

message 20: by Ann (new)

Ann (akingman) | 2097 comments Mod
Matthew wrote: "I'm still wondering:
Are the mentions in chick-lit done for specificity reasons, or are the authors and/or publishers being paid for the mention? And does this even matter?"

I *highly* doubt that anyone is currently being paid for it, with the exception of the few books that were mentioned it that article. One I recall substitued a generic brand of lipstick with a "recognized" one. I think there the benefit was not direct payment but rather cross-promotion. If I recall, the brand featured the book in their advertising. That's *much* more valuable than the few thousand $ that would be paid (I think).

It could get so ugly. What if a publisher entered into an exclusive relationship with, let's say, Coca-Cola (I don't know how to do the fancy R like Linda does, maybe because I don't have a mac). Now any authors that publisher works with couldn't use Pepsi.

Frankly, I think it's the last thing that publishers are thinking about right now. And I'm not sure that too many authors would risk their credibility. But I could be wrong.

This is actually very timely though, because we are actively seeking a sponsor for the podcast and we have been thinking about integrity and audience. As we begin talking to people about sponsoring, we are going to be very particular about the company and their products, to make sure that it is a good fit with you guys, the listeners. (I say that acknowledging that nobody is knocking down the doors right now). If we can't find just the right partner, we'll continue as we have been.

message 21: by Matthew (new)

Matthew Dicks (matthewdicks) | 33 comments Wow. The idea of publishers getting into exclusive relationships with corporations might be fodder for an entire novel.

Something Gary Shteyngart might write.

message 22: by Linda (new)

Linda | 2752 comments Mod

Even if you don't own a Mac, you're still cool with me! (Not old and stodgy like a PC!)

message 23: by Eric (new)

Eric | 1175 comments Mod
If someone were "having a cola" in a book I was reading, my BS detector would go off. Because no one says that. They say Coke or Pepsi (or even RC), but not "cola". It's not believable.

Sometimes the brand names bring the book further into the real world.

Where would "The Stand" be without Harold Lauder's Chocolate Paydays? Or "The Shining" without Jack Torrance chewing Excedrin?

message 24: by Esther (new)

Esther (eshchory) Eric wrote: "If someone were "having a cola" in a book I was reading, my BS detector would go off. Because no one says that. They say Coke or Pepsi (or even RC), but not "cola". It's not believable...."

Earlier the question was asked as to whether this is a typically American phenomenon.
I would say definitely 'No' about product placement but I think brand loyalty might be more important as a personality defining factor in the US.
In the UK there is a certain snobbishness about vocabulary and behaviour.
Here in ISrael we make generalizations about people based on where they live and what they did during their army service.

My friends all drink cola and I have only one friend who cares what brand it is. Brands are only mentioned in fiction for nostalic reasons because before the 1990s there was little choice and about a dozen family owned brands ruled the worldmarket.

message 25: by Tracey (new)

Tracey (tracemick) | 217 comments This is a very interesting topic. I've noticed product placement being more prevalent in movies and television but I never noticed in the books I read. I see that as part of the story and setting up the scene. I guess I can imagine a time when a company might pay to have their product mentioned in a novel but I hope that's a long way off.

When the new version of Miracle on 34th Street was made about 5 years ago, Macy's didn't give permission to use their name so it had to be changed. I have wondered if it was because of some contract they would have had to pay to have their name used or if they didn't want to be associated with the new movie.

On a side note, recently I was reading Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume with my children. I was recalling summers long ago when I was in the backseat of the family car going on a long trip with 10 or more books in the backseat with me. Then it mentioned that Peter got an iPod for Christmas. I practically heard the sound of the car's screeching tires. I remember Peter getting a radio with a tape deck or something like that. I was heartbroken that my beloved book was changed while my kids, who have a vague idea of what a cassette tape is, were oblivious. It made me wonder what else had changed that I didn't remember. I think changes like this are more common with young adult and children's books and, while it bothered me, I know I'm not the target audience anymore. From a business standpoint, it makes perfect sense.

Another Judy Blume book I read as a kid was Are You There God? It's Me Margaret. In the version I read, Margaret, who was anxiously awaiting the arrival of her period, was using a belt and a sanitary napkin that somehow hooked on the belt. My 9-year-old self in 1983 had no idea what she was talking about and I didn't have Google to look it up. I'll have to peruse that book next time I'm at a bookstore to see how it was updated. Then I'll go to a used bookstore or eBay and try to find the edition I remember. :)

message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

Your post brings up another aspect of product placement: What if the idea gets turned round and the publisher/author has to pay for the right to use the brand name?

message 27: by Linda (new)

Linda | 2752 comments Mod

Your comment of the change in the Blume book reminds me of the horror I felt when I heard that Nancy Drew was being updated for today's audiences. Will today's young ever know what a cloche hat is or a roadster?

message 28: by Ann (new)

Ann (akingman) | 2097 comments Mod
I recently read Are You There God? It's Me Margaret with my daughter. No sanitary belt to be found -- it had definitely been modernized there. That was the only thing I noticed, and I can understand why it was done, but ordinarily I'm not a fan of such changes.

message 29: by Lauren (last edited Aug 28, 2010 11:53PM) (new)

Lauren (lrc123) | 7 comments My mom has an original edition of Are You There God? It's Me Margaret and so when i read that book, i did indeed read about her using sanitary belts and i was somewhat mystified, until i asked my mom about it. Once while digging through a box of old clothes, i even found an ancient (unworn!) pair of underwear with a plastic buckle of sorts in the crotch for sliding a pad onto! They were Kotex brand and probably from the 50's or 60's or maybe early 70's. Jeez, I'm glad things have changed so much.

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