Product placement in books – a concept whose time has come?

MiC brings you a few views on connecting with today's readers - and letting non-literary marketers in on the action, as Random House is doing with its new e-lounge.

Debate about whether literature is a legit, or desirable, venue for product placement was sparked by the recent publication of Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233. The manuscript for the teen-lit novel was edited to showcase Procter and Gamble beauty products with mentions of Cover Girl lip and eye makeup, and an illustration originally entitled ‘Artgirl Detective’ changed to ‘Artist! Detective! UnderCover Girl.’

But the commercialization of Cathy’s Book didn’t actually break new ground. To name just a few earlier examples, an Italian jewelry company commissioned Fay Weldon to feature its brand in a novel five years ago. The well-known British author went a step further, titling her book The Bulgari Connection. Ford Motors in the US paid author Carole Matthews to mention the Ford Fiesta in her 2004 novel The Sweetest Taboo. Crime novelist Bill Fitzhugh made a deal to mention Seagram’s in his 2000 novel Cross Dressing. And author Meg Cabot recently hooked up with Clinique to promote her latest young adult book, How To Be Popular, to include a set of Clinique stickers for marking readers’ favourite scenes.

Interestingly, P&G didn’t pay either the publisher of Cathy’s Book or its authors, Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, for the Cover Girl mentions. What the company did offer was an ongoing promotion of the book on its website, which is directed at adolescents and contains makeup tips, games and advice.

That move signaled something that’s at least as noteworthy as the product placement issue. Cathy’s Book was cleverly augmented to appeal to technologically savvy teenagers. And it’s anything but coincidental that its authors’ marketing know-how was honed when they did a promo campaign for Steven Spielberg’s Artificial Intelligence: A.I that involved planting clues about the 2001 movie on the Internet, cellphones and billboards and in newspapers.

In similar fashion, Cathy’s Book includes a sleeve of letters, invitations, pictures and other items that are actually clues to solving the mystery of what happened to Cathy’s boyfriend. The telephone number in the book’s title leads to an outgoing voicemail message from Cathy, and other portions of the book are meant to drive readers to voicemail messages and websites. Some of the characters have pages on, and a movie-style trailer for the book is set to appear on AOL and YouTube.

‘When you think about it, literature must seem to young readers like a strangely antiseptic universe, wholly devoid of the art form they know best: advertising’ – opined the New York Times in a recent editorial about the product placements in Cathy’s Book. That insight prompted MiC to ask both a media professional and a publishing vet for their views on how best to connect with 21st century readers.

Said Brenda Bookbinder, non-broadcast director at Toronto’s PHD agency: ‘One person’s blasphemy is another’s opportunity (and) choice is a good thing. Is product placement … a foreboding slippery slope? Probably. Unavoidable? Likely. Is it an opportunity for advertisers? Definitely.

‘With consumers being hit by, what is it now, 4,500 messages daily,’ Bookbinder continues, ‘the new, the fresh, the creative are quickly becoming the avenue of choice for many advertisers. But, like other mediums, it all takes place on a sliding scale of acceptability, with consumers of the end product being at the controls of what is acceptable and what will be rejected purely as an advertising vehicle. Advertisers, publishers and consumers must judge where the win is. Are Cathy’s Book and Cover Girl’s ‘Daring Red’ lipstick really any different from The Italian Job and the Mini?’

From Lisa Charters, VP/DR online sales & marketing at Toronto-HQ’d Random House publishing, comes a negative view of product placement – plus an intriguing alternative strategy. ‘Deliberate product placement is not something we’re doing at this time. I think it’s actually a risky direction to move in (because) today’s consumers are using the Internet to talk about everything to everyone. But marketers need to be very careful about things that can easily backfire and be seen as blatant advertising.’

The point about all this, says Charters, is that ‘Social media has put consumers in the driver’s seat and in control. And that’s part of the reason why Random House Canada has launched our new online initiatives. We think it’s a much better strategy than traditional marketing – which is getting in people’s faces. It’s been proven that people, especially young people – who are very smart and very Internet-savvy and marketing savvy – are now tuning out pop-up ads and all kinds of other advertising methods.’

So what Random House came up with instead is a concept Charters believes is a publishing first:, which she describes as a ‘virtual water cooler’ for an online community in that it connects book readers with the people who create the books and with other book lovers. To that, with help from Toronto’s Delvinia Interactive, the publisher added websites geared to different book genres such as ‘Given the success of YouTube with its videos, and iTunes and podcasts,’ Charters explains, ‘Random House is now perfectly positioned to engage book readers like we’ve never done before.’, she says, ‘is for people who love, love books. And when people register as members, we invite them to be part of what we call the book lounge editorial board panel. So they can be a sounding board for us and, say, help us choose book covers.’

So is Random House planning to invite advertisers onto their sites? Charters says her company is already ‘partnering with and working with their book club forum, where our authors and books are profiled.’ Any others? ‘We wouldn’t necessarily shy away from advertising. In fact, we’d be interested in connecting with likeminded partners,’ she replies. ‘But the advertising would have to be related to what book readers are potentially connected with. Maybe something like Tim Horton or Starbucks would be good on our website, or travel industry advertisers on’

Something else that’s probably worth mentioning, as long as we’re discussing reaching modern readers, is the surprising liaison just struck by Marvel Comics and CBS’ long-running soap opera Guiding Light. Last week, Marvel began placing a special insert into some if its titles that has superhero group the New Avengers visiting the fictional home of GL‘s characters. In return, the soap plans to air an episode titled ‘She’s a Marvel,’ in which one of the show’s characters gains super powers. The explanation for the rather weird deal, Marvel marketers told the media, is to try to get more females to read their comic books, and more men to watch GL.