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The unsuccessful history of product placement in books, from Bulgari to Sweet’N Low

Brands rarely try to insert themselves into books. That might not say great things about the state of the novel.

Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with books
Most books don’t have product placement — but there are a few that do.
Getty Images/EyeEm
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

For much of the past decade, the characters of The CW’s nighttime soap operas, supernatural and otherwise, have been forced into an unusual predicament: They are all forced to use Bing, Microsoft’s search engine. Moreover, they are forced to use the word “Bing” as a verb.

On The CW, Bing is the solution to all life’s problems. Stepmom got fake cancer from her ex-husband? Bing it. Searching for your niece’s secret birth mother? You Bing that shit. You’re a frazzled Upper East Side fashion designer/mother trying to track down a last-minute venue for a society wedding? Two words for you: Bing. It.

This is an odd thing to explain because it is obvious to the point of absurdity, but CW characters Bing their way through life because The CW has a product placement deal with Microsoft, in which the network is paid money in exchange for having its characters talk about Bing all the time. It’s called product placement, and it’s something we’ve come to expect. If you’re watching a blockbuster movie that needs to make up its astronomical production budget, or a TV show with anemic ratings that needs to justify its existence to a network, you expect the camera to linger over logos for just a little too long, and you consider that a fair trade-off for getting to watch your show. And sometimes the product placement even becomes iconic in its own right (“Reese’s,” anyone?).

But there’s one part of pop culture where product placement has by and large failed to get a toehold, and that’s in books.

When you see a brand mentioned in a novel, it mostly isn’t because the company paid for the privilege. Tiffany’s did not sponsor Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Mostly, brands appear in books because the author is adding texture to the story and using the brand as a signifier to do it: This kind of character shops at this kind of store; this kind of character uses this kind of phone. Mostly, the author isn’t getting paid any money to mention a brand — with some notable exceptions.

It was not always clear that books and brands would stay so separate. At the beginning of the millennium, as acclaimed literary novelist Fay Weldon published the Bulgari-sponsored novel The Bulgari Connection, product placement was expected to be the wave of the future for books. And for some in the literary world, that possibility was cataclysmic.

But despite recurring attempts over the past 18 years to bring brands to books — shopfiction! Click Lit! — books have by and large stayed away from product placement. And the story of why that’s the case, and of how our reactions to that possibility have changed over time, says a lot about the novel’s evolving role in public life.

“Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.”

In the opening pages of The Bulgari Connection, Doris Dubois wears her jewelry to bed. She does so for her husband, who finds it titillating: “white and gold diamonds, cold metal intricately, beautifully worked, lain heavily against the cool, moist flesh of wrist and throat.”

Doris’s jewelry is Bulgari, and in this book, that matters.

When Weldon published The Bulgari Connection in 2001, it arrived to waves of controversy. Some were horrified by the idea of commerce polluting art. Publisher Jason Epstein called the deal “revolting”; Michael Chabon called it “a lame idea.” ‘’It is like the billboarding of the novel,’’ said Authors Guild president Letty Cottin Pogrebin.

The idea was especially surprising because of Weldon herself, who had plenty of literary bona fides. She was chair of the judging panel for the 1983 Booker Prize. Her 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil is still acclaimed as a classic in the 2010s. “Uh, don’t your books sell enough copies already?” said writer Rick Moody in response to the Bulgari deal. “Don’t be a jerk!”

But others were excited. Marketing executive Michael Nyman told the New York Times that the book represented “the next wave of product placement,” theorizing that since a reader’s connection with a book is so intimate and personal, product placement embedded within books would be uniquely effective.

And the book itself — which features the current wife of a real estate mogul plotting to take a custom Bulgari necklace away from her husband’s ex-wife — was on its merits considered to be pretty good. “Condemn Weldon as they may, it will be hard for reviewers to entirely dismiss the wickedly entertaining fiction that results,” said Publishers Weekly in a glowing review, describing the novel as “a deliciously witty and compulsively readable romp.”

That, publisher Grove Atlantic said at the time, was why it agreed to publish the book in the first place after Bulgari commissioned it and Weldon wrote it. A trade publication deal wasn’t part of the original arrangement with Bulgari, which planned to privately distribute the book as company swag: Weldon just thought the book was good enough for a standard publishing contract when she was finished with it, and when she sent it to Grove Atlantic, they agreed. “We decided the book was a kick and we wanted it,” said spokesperson Judy Hottensen in 2001.

Weldon, then and now, is philosophical about the whole thing. In 2001, she told the New York Times that when Bulgari approached her, she thought, “My name will be mud forever.” But she quickly reconsidered: ‘’After a while I thought, ‘I don’t care. Let it be mud. They never give me the Booker Prize anyway.’”

“You have to live,” she told me this March over Skype.

Weldon, now 87, is still publishing, and her most recent novel, After the Peace, came out last fall. She says that when a Bulgari representative approached her with the idea of having her write a novel for the brand, the money was her major consideration. “He said, would I write a novel for Bulgari for 10,000 pounds, so I said yes. Because who ever doesn’t need 10,000 pounds?” (Weldon reviewed her contract with Bulgari after our conversation and found that the 10,000-pound fee she initially cited was incorrect. She added that she was contractually forbidden from naming the exact figure, but that it was equivalent to what a publisher would have given her for a novel. Within the industry, it is believed that Weldon’s fee was at the higher end of five figures.)

Bulgari gave her no restrictions for the book, she says, beyond making certain that it was 60,000 words long and that the name “Bulgari” was mentioned at least 12 times. “I was meant to be selling Bulgari, but I wasn’t really,” she says. “I was writing a novel about jewelry, I thought.” She notes that everyone in her novel who wears Bulgari is “pretty unpleasant.”

“It was quite fun, I must say, at the time,” she added, “although the response was not particularly pleasant. People thought I had sold out.”

I asked her if she would make a similar deal again.

“If they offered me 10,000 pounds, I’m sure I would,” she said. Then she qualified the statement: “It depends on what they’re trying to sell. But I wasn’t trying to sell anything; I was trying to write a novel. I like writing novels.”

“Authors make so little money”

After The Bulgari Connection, other authors and publishers tried to work with brands, but none of them had the literary prestige that Weldon had. Mostly, product placement took place within commercial fiction.

In 2006, young adult fiction became a particularly vexed testing ground. The publisher Running Press agreed to slip a few Covergirl references into the novel Cathy’s Book in exchange for Covergirl parent company Procter & Gamble promoting the book on its website. The beloved author of the Princess Diaries books, Meg Cabot, seeded her book How to Be Popular with references to Clinique as part of a brand partnership, to widespread outrage.

“I AM GOING TO PUKE,” said YA novelist Tamora Pierce in a blog post at the time. (Pierce and Cabot used to run a fan message board together.) “There are hordes of teenaged girls out there who think this woman is God with a tiara. If she laughingly suggests she personally likes Clinique, they will buy these expensive products to be more like her. They’ll find the money from somewhere.”

In 2014, Sweet’N Low manufacturer Cumberland Packing Corporation commissioned an e-book through the trade publisher Rosetta Stone. Find Me, I’m Yours by Hillary Carlip features a heroine who is searching for love in a big city, and who just so happens to also be devoted to Sweet’N Low.

“Hellooo, isn’t it bad for you?” a Sweet’N Low skeptical friend demands.

But the heroine had looked at the studies on Sweet’N Low. “They fed lab rats twenty-five hundred packets of Sweet’N Low a day,” she says. “And still the F.D.A. or E.P.A., or whatevs agency, couldn’t connect the dots from any kind of cancer in humans to my party in a packet.”

If the book succeeded, the New York Times mused at the time, “it could usher in a new business model for publishers, one that blurs the lines between art and commerce in ways that are routine in TV shows and movies but rare in books.” But Find Me, I’m Yours does not seem to have ushered in that imagined future of books sponsored by sweetener companies on every shelf. Instead, it seems to have withered quietly on the vine.

This year, the product placement model du jour is shopfiction, developed by author and fashion blogger Riley Costello and modeled in her first book, Waiting at Hayden’s. In shopfiction, any time a character’s outfit is described, you can click on a link (in an ebook) or scan a QR code (in a printed book) and you’ll be directed to a website where you can see the outfit in question and buy it if you choose.

“Gianna loved trendy, stylish clothes,” Costello writes in one passage. “She was currently wearing a new dress by one of her favorite brands, Winston White, and had paired it with flats and a bamboo clutch.” “New dress” is hyperlinked, and if you click on the link, it will take you to Costello’s website. There, a tasteful, sun-drenched photo shows an actress representing Gianna in her Winston White dress. On the side, an affiliate link is ready to send you straight to the dress’s product page on Winston White’s website.

When I spoke to Costello over the phone, she was careful to note that she only featured brands in her book that she already knew and loved and that she felt would fit her characters. “When I was reading women’s fiction, when I was growing up, before I became an author, I used to Google the outfits described in texts,” she said. (She’s not alone on that one.) “It’s cool to see it all come to life right there.”

Costello added that as a fashion blogger, she’s used to using affiliate links to monetize her writing. Shopfiction was the only way she could find to use a similar strategy in her novels and keep her writing career sustainable. “Authors make so little money, and most can’t afford to keep writing,” she said. “This is a way for authors to profit and readers to see the author’s imagination come to life.”

Costello says she has applied for a patent on shopfiction, which she sees as the wave of the future. “Right now, fashion and fiction are really merging,” she says. “A person who likes to shop will be interested in reading my kind of women’s fiction.”

“It doesn’t pay anybody to do it”

Although product placement in books has been positioned as a potential wave of the future time and time again, that future never quite seems to arrive. What does seem to change is the level of outrage directed against the very idea.

When Weldon published The Bulgari Connection, the deal was considered “revolting” because it was violating the artistic integrity of the novel. When Cabot published How to Be Popular, the deal was considered dangerous because it was taking advantage of children. But by the time Find Me, I’m Yours and Waiting at Hayden’s came around, they were greeted with barely more than a shrug.

In part, that’s because these later two books were commercial, while Weldon was a literary author and as such, her audience had higher expectations. They’re also from lower-profile authors, while Cabot had an existing and enormous fan base who might feel betrayed.

But it’s also because the way we think about the novel has changed. In 2001, the novel was considered sacrosanct, above commercialism. That is no longer the case.

Weldon says she thinks part of the outraged response to The Bulgari Connection was specific to the era. “The novel at the time was seen as a sacred form,” she said. “It is not anymore.”

“That was a very different time in publishing,” agreed publishing consultant Jane Friedman over the phone. “That’s when publishing was running large. It was the height of Barnes & Noble.” If The Bulgari Connection were to come out today, in a post-Amazon world, she suggested, the response would be more muted.

But, she added, it’s unlikely that it would come out today. “Books don’t have that wide of a reach,” she said. “The potential audience is pretty modest, and it’s gotten even more modest since 2001.”

“It doesn’t pay anybody to do it,” says Weldon. “Books measure their readership in thousands, if they’re very lucky. Films and television, you’re talking about millions of viewers. So it’s not worth anyone’s while to do it.”

In 2001, books were a medium distributed widely enough that marketers thought it was worth their while to try to advertise in them — and considered special enough that many in the industry considered product placement to be an abhorrent corruption of the form.

In 2019, literature is no longer a medium that industry celebrities rush to defend whenever the idea of product placement creeps forward. And the novel’s reach is so limited that the idea of product placement doesn’t come up all that often anyway.

So perhaps those 2001 essays about the death of the novel actually had the wrong idea. Perhaps product placement wasn’t a sign that the novel was in mortal danger — but a lack of product placement might be.

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