This Space for Rent

Even though the eager tween/teen audience of Cathy’s Book were just seeking what is, I’m sure, a moving and well-written piece of literature, they got a little extra bang for their buck. The authors, Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, included product placement for CoverGirl cosmetics, so girls can read about the protagonist with her “killer coat of Lipslicks in ‘Daring'” and “eyecolor in ‘Midnight Metal.'” Subtle.

Not that anyone, least of all young teenage girls, is completely sheltered from advertising. Billboards and posters, old school style. Some magazines seem to be a single ad which spans a hundred pages, with a few articles to take up excess space. And some television shows wouldn’t be complete without a couple lingering looks at some well-placed logos. But books? The joke is on you, CoverGirl; nobody reads anymore.

The deal made with Procter & Gamble (CoverGirl’s parent company) was that in exchange for a few mentions of the CG line in Cathy’s Book, they would place advertisements for the book on beinggirl.com, a website with the same young teen girl audience as Stewart and Weisman were hoping to attract. Not a bad business proposal, no? Hard to say how greatly sales were affected by this unorthodoxy, but it ended up at #7 on the New York Times Best Seller list for children’s books in November 2006. Hopefully CoverGirl fared just as well in this deal.

But Cathy’s Book isn’t the first or only to offer space for ads. Other examples:

The Bulgari Connection – commissioned by Italian jeweler Bulgari (surprise)

The Sweetest Taboo – a few paid mentions of the Ford Fiesta

Men in Aprons – for UK household appliance seller Electrolux (You can even buy the book from their website, if you’re so inclined, for only £6.99)

So while the phenomenon isn’t completely isolated, it’s not exactly common. And, as one might guess, not exactly warmly embraced by all either. No less a personality than Ralph Nader (okay, technically it’s Commercial Alert, his advocacy group) urged a boycott. We don’t want to be raising a new generation of consumers for advertisers to prey upon.

Is this a viable method for advertisement? We’ll have to consider the issue in two ways: 1) Does the product in question profit? and 2) Does this, or does it not, suck every ounce of credibility from a book which includes it? I don’t think that anyone, when given the choice between product placement in their novels or not, would opt for the books awash in ads. But if we do find ourselves in that situation, how acceptable would it be? Can you still read and enjoy a sell-out?

Books seem more sacred to me than television shows do, and TV has certainly been saturated. I know that’s irrational, and advertisers will attempt to defile one form of media just as well as another. But I would feel kind of… impure for reading such a transparent marketing ploy. (I put a lot of effort into feeling superior over the TV-watching masses.) I don’t even care about the children like Ralph Nader does, I’m just offended that my books may be invaded.

So, is this a fluke, or is this our future? The publishing industry hasn’t gone bankrupt yet, so I know which option I’m wishing for. Let’s all hope that these books aren’t a harbinger of a grim – but very fashionable! – fate for literature.

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