Marketing, October 21, 2002

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”

—Samuel Johnson

So where are all the shameless, product-pushing shill-fests disguised as novels? We were supposed to be hip-deep in advertising disguised as literature by now. Beautifully crafted poetic novels were going to be replaced by a new kind of book: predictable, efficient Grishamesque boilerplot studded with brand names: “An idealistic Southern lawyer finds himself trapped in a web of conspiracy and intrigue only he can thwart, if he can act in time . . . although of course he won’t worry about the Xerox Model 5665 jamming during the shattering photocopying climax.”

The new age was supposed to have dawned last November. British novelist Fay Weldon cut a deal with the Italian jeweler Bulgari to mention the company or its wares a dozen times in a book. The resulting novel, The Bulgari Connection (putting the sponsor’s name in the title was Ms. Weldon’s idea; Bulgari hadn’t made that a specific part of the arrangement) got unanimously panned and didn’t seem to appreciably boost sales of Bulgari gems, either. Like a lot of clever hybrids, it managed to fail on two fronts — it was lousy advertising and crummy fiction.

That failure did not mean victory for people to whom such a thing was a harbinger of postmodern apocalypse; it was too good an opportunity for public dismay and noisy lamentation. But in all the scolding about literary product placement, nobody acknowledged its pioneer. Almost 20 years ago, critics and commentators identified a kind of fiction they called “shopping mall realism.” Kentucky author Bobbie Ann Mason’s short stories, like “Shiloh,” the title story in her 1983 collection, and 1988 novel In Country typified the form. Brand names did more than just identify products; they helped fix a story’s characters in a particular place and a specific socio-economic stratum.

Take the opening page of In Country: “‘Do you want me to drive now?’ Emmett asks, whipping out a cigarette. He smokes Kents, and he has smoked seven in the two hours they’ve been on the road today.” Or: “At the next exit, Exxon, Chevron and Sunoco loom up, big faces in stilts. There’s a Country Kitchen, a McDonald’s and a Stuckey’s. Sam has heard that Stuckey’s is terrible and the Country Kitchen is good.” On page five, Emmett and Sam are sharing a Pepsi. Not a Coca-Cola, not an RC, not a Dr Pepper, but, quite specifically, a Pepsi. Page six, Sam is driving a VW: “‘I love this car,’ Sam says, giving the car an affectionate slap.”

Fay Weldon writes a meretricious book and gets a check from her publisher and another from a jeweler. Bobbie Ann Mason invents product placement in a much better book and gets nothing for all those meticulously noted and dutifully recorded socio-economic signifiers.

And what about Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz and all the authors who use brands as character-defining shorthand — or instead of character — in books in which people split their time about equally between competitive shopping and pornographic sex rendered in embarrassing detail? Those novels may be short on literary cachet, but they make up for that with reach, penetration and sheer numbers. Would Krantz or Collins readers know the difference between Rodeo Drive and a rodeo clown if it weren’t for Scruples or Hollywood Wives?

Around the same time Ms. Mason was unwittingly creating literary product placement, forgotten media entrepreneur Chris Whittle tried commissioning famous large-brained scribes — famous enough to be literary brands unto themselves — to write novella-length essays on matters of great pith and moment, which he planned to publish as books, with a wad of coated-stock full-page ads in the middle. This was just one of Whittle’s ideas. Others included Channel One, which put commercials in classrooms wrapped in a short-attention-span newscast for distracted teens, and the Edison Schools project, whereby Whittle figured he could do a better job running America’s schools than anybody else.

Here’s a chance to boost both their careers reissuing Ms. Mason’s books. Only this time, they’ll make sure to get the companies whose brands benefit to pay for those plugs.

Like most pioneers, they weren’t wrong. Just early.

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