Literature’s long love affair with product placement

William Boyd’s latest protagonist. Land Rover Our Planet, CC BY-ND

Best-selling novelist William Boyd’s decision to take a commission from Land Rover to write a short story might strike some as a sell-out of the highest order. Indeed, some publishers and writers claim to be aghast at this intrusion of a sponsor into the literary realm. But this deal shouldn’t shock anyone.

Boyd is in good company when it comes to this kind of sponsorship. In 2001, Fay Weldon took a cheque from jewellers Bulgari to write her novel The Bulgari Connection, while BMW commissioned writers to produce audio books in 2005. Ian Fleming was commissioned by the Kuwaiti Oil Company to write a book on the country and its oil industry (though it was never published because the Kuwaiti government disapproved). Artists need patrons, and patrons have priorities. It was ever thus.

An obvious fit

Boyd was expected to mention the product in his story The Vanishing Game in exchange for a reported six-figure fee. Like Weldon before him, he found the brand became the centrepiece of the narrative. In fact, brands can be useful literary devices for characterisation and plot development.

Ian Fleming’s later novels, for example, signalled Bond’s Scottish antecedents and sophistication with his taste for Macallan scotch and Rolex timepieces. The whisky brand even featured free of charge in the latest Bond movie Skyfall to keep a sense of authenticity in the characterisation.

Rolex fared less well, since Omega made the producers an offer they couldn’t refuse several movies ago. There is no report that Fleming used the brands in his novels for anything other than creative reasons.

Product placement might be an obvious fit with visual media, making scenes more realistic in films, TV shows and video games. Paid placements have been present in movies since the silent era, and the techniques have become increasingly transparent. Today, producers are far from coy about their brand deals in spite of the disdain of die-hard movie buffs. Recent hits such as Skyfall, Transformers and Superman have trumpeted their placements as part of the PR hype surrounding the launch.

Brands have also maintained a vivid presence in TV since the fifties. The product placement industry in British TV has thrived for more than thirty years because of the need for verisimilitude in scenes, even before media regulator Ofcom allowed TV companies to earn fees for it in 2011. Product placement agencies provide free scene props where producers can’t sell the space in the scene. Radio and music have also been known to accept payment to include brands in scripts or lyrics.

A long-time literary tradition

The paid-for product references in literature may be more controversial, but it is an even older tradition. Thomas Holloway, the founder of my college, is said to have asked Charles Dickens to mention Holloway’s branded medicine in Dombey and Son. It is thought that Holloway had better luck getting mentions in London stage plays of the time. Dickens, of course, did not baulk at paid commissions.

Today, many commercially successful fashion designers, musicians and actors such as Madonna, Lady Gaga, Iggy Pop, Mark Jacobs and many more see no stigma in commercial partnerships with consumer brand companies. But should successful writers be above that sort of thing?

Granted, many movie and TV scriptwriters are now used to working closely with brands to devise plot-congruent brand mentions. And, clearly, popular novelists are not above the fray. But there is a weight to the written word that lends it a different character to a visual reference. Reading is more active than seeing; and writing, perhaps, carries more weight than film.

Native advertising

In fact, the authority of the written word is driving a shift in product placement into print media. Product placement is a hybrid promotional technique combining elements of celebrity endorsement, advertising, sponsorship and PR. It is in the latter guise that brands are secreting themselves into digital and print media in the form of brand blogs and “native advertising”.

Once called advertorial, this brand-sponsored editorial is composed to look “native” to the publication. In other words, it can be almost impossible to tell that it isn’t editorial. And they are often no mere puff pieces – the branding can be subtle, since the aim is to engage readers. Perhaps surprisingly, this kind of content enjoys a high degree of trust from enthusiasts of these brands, especially when it is mixed in with apparently objective comment and reporting.

Brands don’t like to tell lies because they’ll get found out. PR operates in a zone that is neither fact not fiction, but opinion, and the insertion of brands into non-advertising media content is a powerful ideological strategy normalising and valorising brands in an ostensibly neutral setting.

Novels, of course, are not editorial but creative fiction. We read them to be entertained, and if they inform us too, it’s a bonus. Brand journalism and native advertising, on the other hand, trade in the art of factual representation. They can be seen as editorial that is spliced with promotion. Perhaps, then, we should cut novelists more slack than we give to journalists when it comes to taking money from consumer brands.

Distinctions between editorial and advertising, and between creative writing and factual reporting might be unhelpful in understanding why brands want to pay to be read about. The force of the written word is an attraction for advertisers, and the media context is becoming less important as genres merge in the era of media convergence. Perhaps we should just accept that all media content is branded: it’s really just a question of degree and transparency.