Wednesday, June 14, 2006

This Reading Experience Brought To You By...

Courtesy of the New York Times comes this article about product placement in a young adult novel.

Yep, that’s right: product placement.

You know product placement. It’s what made Reese’s Pieces a household name after E.T.; it’s why sitcom characters always hold the soda can with the name displayed toward the camera. Companies pay for the privilege of having their products onscreen. Nobody cares; after all, the hero has to swig something, and whether it’s a Coke or a Pepsi won’t make any difference to the story or to the viewer. If a company wants to cough up enough cash to ensure that their athletic shoes adorn the heroine’s feet, be my guest.

This seems to be the line that the publisher, authors, and Cover Girl are taking about the product placement in Cathy’s Book, a young adult novel due out in September 2007 from Running Press. Cover Girl isn’t paying the authors directly; instead, the company will help promote the book. In exchange, according the NYT article: “Some of the changes that the authors and illustrators…have made since the partnership was struck include altering a drawing entitled "Artgirl Detective" to "Artist! Detective! UnderCover Girl" and changing a generic reference to "gunmetal grey eyeliner" to "eyecolor in 'Midnight Metal.'”

So what? Does this hurt anyone? Probably not. But it makes me uneasy, if for no other reason than novels are one of the last ad-free bastions left in our world. Here in Portland, our city ballpark is named after a utility company. The Triple Crown races are now the Visa Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby brought to you by Yum! Brands. Everything, it seems, now comes with a tag attached. Even--if you can believe this--a kid’s bus ride to school.

If this works out well for Cover Girl, then certainly we’ll see more of it. How soon before a company offers to pay? How many authors could resist the kind of money and promotional opportunities a big company can offer? (Let me pop a balloon right here—nobody, aside from Steven King and John Grisham and a few others, makes a living writing novels. Even Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates have day jobs). Would we tell ourselves, as the writers in this article did, that it's not a big deal, it's not changing the story?

As far as that goes, I do believe them (and for the record, let me say that the premise of Cathy’s Book sounds absolutely delicious). But if a company pays for product placement in a novel, you can bet that at some point, pressure will come to bear on the author or publisher.

More importantly, does it change the reader's experience? To me, there's a big difference between "gunmetal grey eyeliner" and "eyecolor in 'Midnight Metal.'" The first is good, detailed writing that does what good, detailed writing is supposed to do: evoke a visual image. I read that phrase and I can see the color. In contrast, “eyecolor in ‘Midnight Metal’” pulls me out of the story, wondering what Midnight Metal might look like. Instead of a clear visual image, it mall.

It's the same difference between the Civic Stadium and PGE Park. One belonged to the city residents. The other is bought and paid for, and you'd better not forget it.

It could be hard to lose yourself in a novel with that kind of message.

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