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That Sweet & Low eBook is Only the Tip of the Sponsored Content Iceberg

6962ded1603489f2f42f4ecf224c5b46[1]Assuming Amazon doesn’t manage to kill the book industry, the next great threat reared its head this week. The NY Times reported on Sunday that product placement was making its way to books.

Oh, the horror:

The heroine of “Find Me I’m Yours,” a new novel by Hillary Carlip, is a quirky young woman named Mags who works at an online bridal magazine and is searching for love in Los Angeles.

But the story also has another, less obvious protagonist: Sweet’N Low, the artificial sweetener.

Sweet’N Low appears several times in the 356-page story, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. In one scene, Mags, a Sweet’N Low devotee, shows off her nails, which she has painted to resemble the product’s pink packets. In another, she gets teased by a co-worker for putting Sweet’N Low in her coffee.

The novel in question isn’t so much a novel as it is a multi-format work which includes an ebook as well as a series of websites and web TV shows, all of which is designed as "a vehicle for content sponsored by companies". The artificial sweetener shows up several times in the story because its maker paid $1.3 million for the privilege, just like a car maker might pay to get their latest model added as a plot point in a tv series.

Aside from the point that this idea is being applied to books, it’s not new. But I was inspired to comment on the story after Mike Cane posted his rant about it. I can’t quote much of what he wrote (it’s NSFW) beyond his description of the publisher was doing:

Destroy a form of art so you can cash in.

Needless to say, my viewpoint is much milder than his. Speaking as someone who has to make a living off of his writing, I have a passing knowledge of the history of sponsored content.

It goes back decades, and while there are far more examples of sponsored content in books than I could fit in a single blog post there are a couple which stand out in my mind.

Even if you leave out product placement in movies and tv shows and focus solely on books, this is far from the most obnoxious example of sponsored content. My nominee for that title would be Transformers and GIJoe – not the current movies but the original early 1980s comic books and tv series.

I don’t know if the people who ranted about the recent terrible movies recall this, but the original comic books and tv series were created as a vessel to sell toys. This is especially true in the case of GI Joe, which was a doll long before the comic books and tv series.

Marvel, which created and published the comic book series, got involved in GI Joe in the early 1908s when Hasbro wanted to restart the toyline, and was looking for a new way to promote it. And after GI Joe proved wildly successful, the two companies continued their partnership with the Transformers – which, like GI Joe, started as an idea for a line of toys and grew from there.

And yet somehow, despite Marvel’s and Hasbro’s best efforts, those toys didn’t kill comic books as an art form.

Something tells me that this Sweet & Low sponsorship won’t kill books, either.


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Ted November 4, 2014 um 10:09 pm

Hm, I thought product placement in novels was already common. So many iPods, iPhones, and iPads when generic device terms would work just as well and keep the story from becoming dated as the years go by. I guess the authors are just huge fans or something.

Loïc November 5, 2014 um 3:55 am

Exactly. There are so many examples, such as Millenium’s Lisbeth macbook, Penderghast macbook, or Stephanie Plum cars, ipods and iphones in other books. Even in sci fi books I have already spotted product placements, I think in was in the Culture series.
The only change seems to be that the said placement becomes more and more intrusive and interferes with the story.

Nate Hoffelder November 5, 2014 um 6:56 am

Thanks for the confirmation. I hadn’t seen product placement in books before – or at least I can’t recall any examples.

DavidW November 5, 2014 um 2:48 pm

The Macbook does stand out in the Millenium trilogy… but ipods and iphones are ubiquitous. You might as well criticize writers for saying "kleenex" instead of paper tissue.

The Culture series has no product placement. It is set in the far future and has no products even vaguely resembling the stuff in our lives.

Loïc November 5, 2014 um 2:58 pm

Well, the far future, if you exclude "The State of Art" which happens mostly in the seventies on earth, so many brands in this one.
About product placement enabled sci fi, the Blue Ant series are a fine example too…

Tom November 5, 2014 um 3:51 pm

Mentioning a product name is surely different from receiving payment to include a product in your book. How do you know they received money for simply mentioning a character was using a MacBook?

Writing about a character listening to their iPod doesn’t necessarily mean they got payment from Apple to write that. In movies and TV it’s more blatant, to the point that in a lot of TV clips I see from the states, non-sponsored brands are blurred out. And if you do notice a brand in a movie you can bet the brand paid for that shot.

I’d be interested to know where product placement as actually happened. As though I’m not apposed to brands and writers having an arrangement, I’d like to know when it was happening, like this sweet n low example.

Loïc November 6, 2014 um 11:10 am

For an ipod, as it’s pretty come to mean "mp3 player", but come on, no one says "MacBook" instead of "laptop".
I mean, one can easily differentiate when a brand is used to improve the description, like in "the man was driving a Lamborghini", or a big GM pickup, from usage where the man is using his MacBook, then typing on his MacBook, or buying a MacBook to replace his old and crumbling computer.
When the brand is repeated though the book without any synonym, associated with positive qualifiers, you got a product placement for sure.

puzzled November 5, 2014 um 3:30 am

I’m looking forward to the James Patterson Book-of-the-Month Club sponsored by Chevrolet.

Ebook Bargains UK November 5, 2014 um 5:40 am

Product placement is often used as an essential characterisation tool. If indies are lucky enough to attract the interest of a sponsor for books already using their products as defining features, good luck to them.

I just hope we don’t (but know full well we will) see a rash of ill-conceived and equally ill-written titles written around a product in the hope of attracting a sponsor).

But savvy agents will surely be looking at the potential here to put well-written works in front of companies with the aim of replacing publisher advances with corporate sponsorship.

And companies will be looking at the possibilities of series written around their products, with cheap digital runs and two-way product placement with the ebooks on their own-brand products.

DavidW November 5, 2014 um 2:50 pm

I don’t think that ads in novels will really take off because the audience for all but a small handful of novels is vanishingly small compared to TV shows and Hollywood blockbuster films.

David Gaughran November 6, 2014 um 8:37 am

I wrote a piece about product placement a couple of years ago. As you noted, it’s not a new phenomenon. The first case I could find was when Jules Verne began serializing Around The World In Eighty Days back in 1872, and was lobbied by transport and shipping companies to be mentioned.

But easily the most hilarious was from a 1962 detective novel by Brett Halliday called Never Kill A Client, which I stumbled across in a secondhand bookstore in Sweden, of all places. In one of the opening scenes, the hero takes a seat on a plane next to a passenger reading another of Brett Halliday’s books:

“It wasn’t a rare occurrence for Shayne to see some complete stranger reading one of Halliday’s books. With thirty million copies of them sold in soft cover editions, it would have been queerer if you didn’t run into them now and then. And Shayne also knew that She Woke to Darkness had recently been reissued in a new cover and there were probably several hundred thousand copies of it in the hands of readers throughout the country.”

And it went on like that for another two pages!

Nate Hoffelder November 6, 2014 um 8:40 am

Hah! You’re right, that is worse than the Transformer books.

Chris Meadows November 6, 2014 um 10:20 am

I’d just like to point out that, as a child of the ’70s and ’80s, I loved both the Transformers and G.I. Joe stuff. You could look at the product placement stuff as being a challenge, like writing workshop exercises: tell a compelling story; you must use these particular characters and these particular vehicles. And they did pretty well, or the properties wouldn’t be remembered fondly enough to both be getting reboot movies.

For that matter, a much more recent product placement TV show effectively spawned a whole Internet movement. (They call themselves "bronies.") So clearly, product placement done right doesn’t necessarily betoken low quality stuff.

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