Selling Out—Product Placement

Publishing industry’s “obsession” with new, marketable voices..?

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
We discussed product placement last year, in a thread started by @Katie-Ellen Hazeldine, but this article in Vox reveals some startling examples of product placement by authors and screenwriters:

The unsuccessful history of product placement in books, from Bulgari to Sweet’N Low

When a writer signs a contract agreeing to mention a company or product a certain number of times in their story, then the book is really an extended commercial...more so, if the company's name is part of the title, as in Fay Weldon's The Bulgari Connection. Although a fashion blogger turned novelist, called Riley Costello, is attempting to patent the term 'shopfiction', it seems that the notion of promoting product names in books has declined in use, largely because books are seen to be less influential these days.

Setting a story in the world of fashion or music, come to that, it would be impossible not to name names, as both activities are driven by competition between labels and brands for clothing, perfume and instruments. That's not necessarily product placement.

Some commercial names become common expressions, such as to hoover, google it, jacuzzi, q-tips and tupperware.

Product placement is not usually an issue with Crime writing, but it's something I've taken into account in penning my Cornish Detective novels. Without meaning to infer that what vehicles my regular characters drive are in any way desirable, I mention their cars, bicycles and motorcycles more as a way of showing their characters. I've read some crime novels that didn't describe the make of car at all, which seemed daft, for the author happily named the detective's gun and even which ammunition it was loaded with.

I'm working my way through James Oswald's Inspector McLean series. I'd hazard a guess, that Oswald admires and maybe owns an Alfa Romeo, for his protagonist drives a classic Alfa, wildly unsuitable for his job, and a more modern Alfa only lasted one book before it was destroyed when a building exploded.

I tend not to have my detective protagonist say "google it" when his officers are searching for information while staking out a suspect's house, instead he asks someone to look on their smartphone. One of my beta readers called me on what she thought might be product placement, as I'd had my main character order a collectable Victorian book on orchards from AbeBooks, which seemed the most likely place that he would have found it, and that sounded less clumsy than saying "an online book retailer." Admittedly, when I wrote it, I thought some readers might benefit from knowing about AbeBooks, but I don't see any money coming my way! :rolleyes: Nor will I get anything for mentioning Taser, the electroshock weapon, which has been used a couple of times in my stories. o_O

How do you handle the issue of mentioning product or company names?

Another angle... I've been advised in critique groups to remove references to brand name items for fear of trademark infringement. I don't actually think it's an issue. If your character drinks a Coke on the page, CC-Amatil will probably not care a jot. If your work becomes super successful, they'll probably applaud the free advertising. But if your despicable villain in your super-successful mega-bestseller drinks a Coke with evident enjoyment, do they have a potential case against you? One of my characters once referred to a gaggle of lawyers in identical suits and haircuts as "Businesswoman Barbies" and a concern was raised that this could be litigious.

Most authors like to include brand names in their work without any kind of commercial agreement or benefit, because it adds verisimilitude to the story. Concrete details about the world in which they move and indications of the tastes and preferences of the characters. But what we do is a form of entertainment, not documentary history, and theoretically if a trademark holder objects to how their products are portrayed, in the worst-case scenario, they could have your books taken off the shelves and pulped. Is it worth the risk?
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Publishing industry’s “obsession” with new, marketable voices..?

Words You Like