February 20, 2008

Writers, Sisters & Product Placement

(I can't apologize for broaching this subject again because it's on my mind, but this should be the last I say about it for awhile. Bear with me.)

The other day I commented about product placement from the point of view of a sibling. My little sister just turned twelve last week, and I find myself cringing as I watch her so long for some of the things her classmates and friends have. It really can make you sick, wishing and wanting -- and it's unnecessary, from that view, for anyone to encourage the natural longing of a child to have what others have, with actual product names in their literature.

My niece went through a phase like that. I remember her sitting in front of the TV one Christmas season when she was about four and complaining that she wanted EVERYTHING she saw on every commercial. She concluded with, and I kid you not, "I want to 'Safeguard the ones you love.'" Yes. She was quoting a ANTIBACTERIAL SOAP commercial. My sister laughed... and then turned off the tv for a week or so.

I batted this topic around with my writing group and came up with a surprisingly reply. A dear friend and former marketing professional challenged the idea that product placement is all bad. She remarked,

"Kids are inundated with marketing and product placement left and right. It's our culture and our political make-up. We are a material, consumeristic [sic] society, thanks to the machine we call American capitalism. If people don't consume, the economy sours. The big push in both business and politics is to keep people consuming so our economy will stay strong.

Is it right? That's debatable. Is it good? Would it be better if everyone saved instead of spending all that they make, living paycheck to paycheck so they can drive fancy cars, own the latest gadgets, and wear designer duds? Absolutely, but many economists think our economy would literally tank as a result.

I believe kids are smart and marketing-savvy. I don't think they feel the need to drink a Coke every time they watch American Idol. At the same time, I think they are suckers for name brands the way I am, and most of my friends are. We are all marketing victims. I'd love to hear from anyone in our group who thinks they aren't to some degree."

I'm really glad someone is willing to articulate their viewpoint that this practice just might be defensible. I tried to sit and really think about what my friend said. Don't I have particular brands of even computers or ink pens that I prefer? Aren't PC people all into Windows (Um, no.)? Maybe I'm just not opinionated enough with regard to things; I can't even think of a fabric I prefer (Cotton? Or wool. Or linen! It's just so hard!).

What I do know is this: I'm unprepared to even discuss the economy as compared to the wellbeing of my sister or any child. They spout that tripe periodically to keep people buying, but even if we all had to give up our Beamer’s and townhouses by the sea and go back to buttons and shells for bartering, the economy will be fine. It's the little sisters whose strengths and needs and minds need to be paramount. Not to put too fine a point on it, or venture deeply into what is political ideology, less than 2% of the country lives at the level that these economists trumpet as being so crucial to the much-vaunted American Way of Life which we must at all costs protect. I can't go with that big a picture. I, like you, can only concentrate on the little girl I know.

And I think this little girl is potentially savvy enough to know when she's being marketed to, but only if she is told. My mother never allowed us to wear someone else’s brand name on our bums, and I never wore one thread of clothing that proclaimed its name – or the name of any band or cartoon or anything. Mom said if they weren’t paying me, I wasn’t wearing it, and if I had kids of my own I think I’d lean the same direction. My mother cut out all of our tags (including taking embroidery scissors and snipping embroidered names from denim) and left in washing instructions covered by our initials (three girls, laundry squabbles halved when clothes are identified. Plus: bonus clothing I.D. for school!). She had an opinion on this in terms of class and money, and she was pretty hardcore about it when I was younger. (My younger sibs might get away with the occasional Muppet on their shirts, but even now, not often.)

This is not to say that I didn’t want the Pottery Barn Kids or Benetton sweaters I saw people wearing. I wanted a t-shirt that said J Crew right across the chest, but I never wore one, and wouldn’t wear one now. I know what it says: I have enough money to patronize these stores. That still isn't true, and I don’t know what their company policies are, if they use sweatshop labor or whatever, and they’re not paying me to wear their name which is not the point, but it reminds me: I have a name. And an identity. And it isn't J Crew. I don’t do walking advertisements. (I mean, how can I? I read Jennifer Government and Feed.)

My marketing friend points out,
"So books have been free of this product placement? I actually don't think this is necessarily true. Many of the books I read are laced with brand names. And even of us in our group have incorporated brands into our work. Innocently, of course. We're not getting paid to do so. But why not? It will happen anyway if the book is ever made into a movie or a tv show. Why can't I get a bit of the pop too? Especially if I was planning to name drop anyway for free?"

Now, here is where I can feel I can respond to my friend with a solid point: Describing characters in terms of things they own and use tells me nothing about the character. Nothing. It tells me about the AUTHOR. And all the work we constantly put in to keep authorial interference OUT of our YA novels – realizing that we as the adult ARE NOT IMPORTANT to the story - it is really bizarre to me that someone would willingly insert themselves in that way. Product placement might tell me a bit about the character’s attitude or social class ("Gossip Girl," with that series' constant references to Prada and Burberry infers that people who use those products are... gossipy?), but only in the most shallow and negligible way.

Further, as a writing idea, product placement is a BAD one. My editor mentioned to me that she appreciates the lack of slang in a book, because slang dates writing. I remember reading a story or novel that referenced Seven Jeans and not knowing what the heck they were – thus pulling me out of the narrative, which is NOT a positive, in terms of craft. Marketing people know, in their own field that brands and jingles have a shelf life of -- maybe -- five years, if not fewer. Sure, trends come back, but if you're trying to write a work with a little endurance, throwing in the name of a label or a fragrance, celebrity or item popular this year is potentially fatal at worst, and shallow at best. If authors are going to pepper their work with self-referential, idiosyncratic details, where is there room for me as a reader who isn’t into that? (And I can see the disbelief now: “Everybody knows” what Seven Jeans are. “Everybody” cool, anyway, is what the magazines would have you believe. That’s a fairly fifth grade idea, and I don’t buy it.)

Maybe what bothers me most is that a.) HarperCollins is aiming this new series of product-larded books at 8-to-12-year-old girls and b.) the head exec of their marketing group will write the books. Why girls? Theoretically males have the buying power in American society, right? Still pulling in those larger salaries, right? Yet it's important to further entangle girls in the cycle of want, and start it even earlier? Because advertisers KNOW little girls are already susceptible to the shopping thing and grown up girls spend more money? Wow. Talk about taking advantage.

Do you see where this takes us? Into books not written by AUTHORS. Not by people trying to break into print, or who are already there, proven on their ability to write well. Now we have a marketing honcho. Pushing product. Onto girl children.

Actually embroidering mere fiction on top of all of this seems beside the point, doesn't it?! The purpose of story is NOT to sell crap. NOT to shove morals down my throat. NOT to be pushing an agenda. HarperCollins has got to be kidding themselves if they think that selling people an advertisement makes sense. (Of course, I don't think they're counting on it making sense. They're just counting on the fact that they think tween readers are suckers.)

Okay. Down off the soapbox. Loving the world again.


Kelly said...

Your rant is SOOO awesome, Tadmack, that I decided not just say "what she said" in response. But I also tried my hand at a little product placement of my own. Can you place me?


Anonymous said...

Huzzah! Well-said, TadMack. I hope you remember to thank your mother for investing the time into acting on her principles - that's totally awesome.

Anonymous said...

*Standing ovation, lighter swaying, stomping on the floor*

and another round of that for your wise mom

Anonymous said...

Nice! I can't trackback to blogger, but I linked over.

Vivian Mahoney said...

"product-larded books" Love it.

Awesome post.

Erin said...

Get on your soapbox anytime, please.

Andromeda Jazmon said...

"Go 'head girl" she said as she snuck off to get the embroidery scissors out and snip the GAP letters off her toddler son's hoodie. "I am totally with this! I can't believe they think we are such suckers!"

Roger Sutton said...

Read William Gibson's Pattern Recognition, too: its heroine is so physically sensitive to brands she can't wear them--but so attuned to their power that companies pay big bucks for her approval.

David T. Macknet said...

Regarding Pattern Recognition: we're going there, and everybody keeps on shouting the warnings ... but is anybody listening? When the publishing companies can hire a marketing executive to 'write' some books to push products ... methinks that we're there already, and that there's a big problem.

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

You know those "stories" in magazines and newspapers that you think, at first, are genuine articles? And then as you read, you start thinking, "Hmm, this sounds sorta like a commercial," and you look up and see "Advertisement" in the header?
If a story's written for any reason other than to tell a story, the reader can tell.
Btw, love the little ranting smiley face with his arm akimbo.

Robin Brande said...

TadMack, your mother was HARDCORE. I think I love her.

And speaking of love, how about your phrase "product-larded"? Mighty fine, Wordsmith.

Sarah Stevenson said...

Yes, I loved "product-larded." I had to go back and savor that one. Not that lard is something I normally savor, but you know what I mean.

I realize I haven't joined in the discussion yet here or in our writing group, but generally I tend to agree--the only exceptions that I can think of are brands that have become synonymous with what they represent (i.e., Kleenex, though "tissue" is perfectly serviceable; or Doritos, because is there really anything else like a Dorito on Earth?) or brands that really have stood the test of time and do reveal something about a character...But even then, is it really necessary to use a brand name? Probably not. I've been guilty of it from time to time, dropping in a brand name with just as little forethought or awareness as the readers who would potentially be reading it.

And even if young consumers these days are marketing-savvy, does that make it okay to pepper writing with brand names? Even if you're aware you're being marketed to, that doesn't change the fundamental psychological principle that we tend to remember things that we've been repeatedly exposed to...for many, the familiar = comfort...and if messages are camouflaged in a favorable setting, such as an enjoyable book, we tend to be more receptive to those messages.

In the end, I don't think it's flat-out wrong to use brand names in writing. There's a danger that it can weaken and/or date fiction writing, and sometimes takes the place of more vivid description and exciting writing. But I do feel it's VERY wrong and also icky to construct a purported creative product on the framework of a marketing endeavor.

Anonymous said...

AMEN. Thank you for writing thi!

Anonymous said...

Aagh. For writing this, is what I meant to type.

(Time for more coffee!)

Jennifer Thermes said...

Your post is amazing and SO needs to be said. I will share it with my kids, too.

Anonymous said...

"I'm unprepared to even discuss the economy as compared to the wellbeing of my sister or any child." Go go go go go!!!!!

C. K. Kelly Martin said...

I'm so disgusted by this HarperCollins idea that I don't know what to say. It sounds like the backbone of a dystopia novel.

I hope the series fails miserably.

Saints and Spinners said...

I'm reminded of that short story in Anne of Green Gables (or was it a later one) where Diana submits Anne's story to a magazine and puts in the flour product placement right at the very end.

Ellen Emerson White said that she updated her previous Meg Power books to make Meg drink Coke instead of Tab. I still find all of the Cokes mentioned a bit distracting. However, whenever an author makes up a convincing product (Bernie Botts, anyone?), I am fine with it.