One of the benefits of being a writer is setting your own schedule. That means that if you want to watch Rachel Ray make white bean chili in the middle of the afternoon you may. By chance, I did just that the other day. In the midst of the chili instruction, Rachel specified a certain brand of white beans. She showed the can to the camera. I said to myself, “okay.” Maybe that’s her favorite. Or maybe that’s what they had on hand. As the demonstration continued there were several beauty shots of cans of beans arranged artfully with the same brand name clearly readable, clearly an ad. Now it irritated me. I was still going to get all the regular commercials— far too many if you ask me, plus those in the body of the show in quite possibly the most blatant manner possible. This was product placement beyond product placement. They were trying to get one over on me and it was clumsily done. Movies have been doing this for years, usually with a higher degree of subtlety. The most egregious was in a recent Bond film where the studio replaced Bond’s Aston Martin with a BMW. All this made me curious about books. The blog, Crimezine, posted an interesting James Bond book spoof of product placement at its most ridiculous — and humorous. But are there writers who accept additional fees for mentioning a product by name?
As a general rule, I’d advise writers against the practice. But I do mention brand names in my books. Often. Let me explain. First I’ve never accepted any money to mention a product. Second, nobody’s offered. However, as a means to make the scene real and to describe a character, I have no problem letting an established brand name help me define someone. If I say ‘”she wore a yellow scarf,’ I have not conveyed the same sense as “she wore an Hermes scarf.” I might say, “He drove a luxury car.” That may be enough; but what if if he drove a Mercedes sedan, a Ferrari or, a Tesla? They are all luxury cars, but each choice defines the driver specifically and differently. Isn’t that what a writer is supposed to do? In the good old, days, a tough private eye wouldn’t smoke a dainty Parliament with a recessed filter or a Newport. He would smoke a Camel or a Lucky Strike. Clearly identifying a weapon may be important in a murder mystery. The point is: brand names might help us tell a better story or, if not wisely used, spoil it.
I would also say that to the extent our fiction is also recorded history, the added detail gives the story lasting value. On the other hand, if you are trying to make your story timeless, using brand names may be counter productive.
Unfortunately if you let a product placement have a say in the TV show, movie or book, you are letting the tail wag the dog. This is never a good idea.
I hope readers will let me know how they feel about product placement. I am most curious if any writers engage in the practice and how they feel about it.