Bought Words: On Product Placement in Fiction - Christopher Linforth

 

1. 

Lately, I have been thinking a lot about money and writing. Namely: the inverse relationship between one and the other. Since I published my debut short-story collection last year, the large pay-checks have been noticeably absent. This was no surprise. With all the anecdotes I had heard from colleagues and friends, I didn’t plan for my book to add to my 401(k). Quite the opposite, in fact. I received a small advance, a handful of good reviews and was longlisted for one prestigious award. Not too bad. 

But more money would have been nice. 

According to one survey reported in The Guardian, professional authors make a median £11,000 (just under $17,000) a year. All writers around £4,000 ($6,000). If you’re like me, this figure seems abnormally low—yet realistic. The publishing industry has been through tough times over the last decade and has been affected by a variety of factors: the dominance of Amazon; cheaper e-books; the rise of self-publishing; book piracy; smaller advances; the increasing number of books published each year. Publishing survived. But the results have been financially calamitous for many writers. 

So I want to propose a thought experiment: What if fiction writers use paid product placement? 

Before you dismiss this idea out of hand, hear me out. Writers already commonly use brand names. They use Lysol rather than bleach and Dum-Dum than lollipop. Coke bests soda. Why is this? Partly writers are setting up their worlds, determining place and time period, but they are also enacting one version of society for the audience. Brand names are also a stylistic choice: how words look on the page or sound to the ear. Sometimes the intent is to ridicule or offer a parody. Two of my favorite novels—Infinite Jest and Super Sad True Love Story—critique companies and their products and, in doing so, point to a greater truth about capitalism: that it’s both necessary and harmful in giving people a function. 

2. 

I assumed Fay Weldon’s 2001 novel, The Bulgari Connection, was the first book of fiction to use paid product placement. Though the novel started as a privately published work, in which Weldon was contracted to mention Bulgari jewelry a minimum of twelve times (thirty-four, as it turns out), the book was soon made commercially available. It was a hit, and both the luxury jewelry maker and Weldon were thrilled with the result. 

At least in a fictional context, I discovered, Weldon’s excursion into product placement is predated by Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne and the Island (1915). Yes, this is the same Anne seen in Anne of Green Gables from seven years earlier. One storyline from the novel focuses on Anne as a writer: Anne writes a short story and sends it out to a host of literary magazines. They all reject it. Anne’s best friend, Diana, then adds a new final clause to the story: “…we will never use any baking powder except Rollings Reliable.” Without Anne knowing, Diana enters it into the company’s contest. Once Anne discovers she has won, she is horrified. Anne, in her own eyes, has become a sell-out. 

3. 

Product placement has been commonplace in television and cinema since the very beginning. Slides were inserted into early movies, advertising stores and household items. Television continued this trend with soap powder, toothpaste, you name it, bankrolling entire genres of programming. These days, computers and tablets, soft drinks, and sugary cereals are subtly, and not so, revealed on our screens. And why not? They help pay for the production of our entertainment. At some point along the way, fiction was excluded from this lucrative arrangement and as such made claim to literature clinging true to art, unfettered by the pernicious influence of cold hard cash. 

Now if writers were to supplement their income with paid endorsements, I imagine prickly questions would emerge concerning the integrity of characters and their identities. A few come to mind: Does it matter if Holden Caulfield wears a red hunting hat than a Yankees baseball cap? Or if Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom makes Trojan his prophylactic of choice? What if the barns in Animal Farm are painted with slogans from Oscar Mayer? Preposterous as these examples may be, it’s clear products (and their advertised virtues) influence, consciously or not, the reader’s experience. It’s chafing for many to see character motivations and desires corrupted by a slathering devotion to a product. It strikes us as insincere. But where is the line? And where do we stand on the commodification of words? 

In the case of Weldon, there was an outcry and admonishment from such notable writers as Michael Chabon and Ron Hansen. Rick Moody, quoted in Salon, took a more nuanced stance, observing that publishers are part of multinational conglomerates. I take his point that it’s intellectually dishonest to ignore the realities of the publishing world and the writer’s place in the sphere of commerce. 

Extending Moody’s point, I would argue the forces of capitalism have far from a detrimental effect on literature. At least, in the sense, that Big Five publishers have top-notch editors and a keen ability to make stories the best they can be. It strikes me as odd that art and commerce are separate when we like to think about them as such. Indeed, this idealized state of affairs has rarely been the case. Take patronage, for example. For centuries it operated as a paternalistic impetus for the creation of art in many forms. Think: Botticelli, Mozart, Shakespeare. The list goes on. Since Duchamp, visual art has embraced (as well as critiqued) capitalism. Ready-mades and appropriations are ubiquitous. Today, as a result of this dualism, we are still reeling from the production line work of Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst. 

4. 

I am not immune to capitalist influences. I enjoy the occasional Budweiser and watch plenty of Hollywood movies. I own things. I consume. But selling-out in the Rollings Reliable way induces a sickening feeling. Part of me thinks I am being deliberately naïve to support my idealistic worldview. For decades, writers of all sorts have crafted copy for advertising agencies and written puff pieces for corporations. Don DeLillo, Elizabeth McCracken, Salman Rushdie, to name a prominent three. I am also aware that in more recent years, native and sponsored advertising has taken to the Web, masquerading as quality nonfiction. These paid-for editorials and articles are most readily noticeable (or not!) at sites like BuzzFeed. It’s hard to ascertain how much audiences today care. Back in 1996, David Foster Wallace in his Harper’s essay “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise” seemed aptly disgusted. As Wallace skewers Frank Conroy for his superlative—and paid—coverage of a Celebrity Cruise, he terms Conroy’s writing an “essaymercial.”

These paid-for sojourns, when undeclared, often strike us the wrong way. But it’s worth remembering that a paycheck for nonfiction writers usually awaits. However, where does this leave fiction writers? And, besides, would there be a demand for product placement beyond the most popular novels? Leave aside Stephen King, J.K Rowling, James Patterson, and who would companies like to partner with? 

There is some evidence in the recent proliferation of sponsorship deals. Hillary Carlip, the author of the new novel, Find Me I’m Yours, accepted $1.3 million dollars for the fawning mentions of Sweet’N Low. The young protagonist of Mackenzie Blue loves Converse. Yet, perhaps, the infiltration of branding is not a recent phenomenon. There was speculation by the early biographers of Jules Verne that the serialized nature of Around the World in Eighty Days led to money changing hands for shipping and travel companies. If it was good enough for Jules Verne, why not me? 

5. 

I don’t want to be a sell-out. Yet, I want success. I want to make a decent living. I am not the first to face this conundrum. On a daily basis, I read online news reports about writers making deals for corporate-purchased fiction (Chipotle, Jack Daniels, Absolut) and producing thinly-disguised essaymercials. If anything, these relationships make clear the majority of writers are underpaid. They cannot survive on their writing income alone. Writers, then, are left in a difficult set of circumstances. Some teach or work for non-profits or as grant writers. Some strike out and pursue self-publishing, hoping that Amazon’s dominance will save them.

This is unlikely. 

I don’t have any answers for writers’ dwindling incomes. I only know we should be wary of the future. We should be wary of our functions. The encroachment of advertising into literature should leave us thinking, questioning, even doubting the purposes of capitalism. Advertising is everywhere. Even, probably, surrounding these words. A new generation of authors may embrace shiny and bright product names and trademarked phrases. Books may end up as 80,000-word homages to the McDonald’s Dollar Menu or as fashion shows for the new line of overpriced Abercrombie & Fitch sweaters. Gross, I know. Anne would have something to say to these future writers. In fact, thankfully, she does: “never…write a word for a low or unworthy motive, but always cling to the very highest ideals."


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Christopher Linforth is the author of the story collection When You Find Us We Will Be Gone. He has recently published work in Funhouse, The Millions, and Permafrost.