In Books for Young, Two Views on Product Placement
The New York Times
February 19, 2008
Specifying a character’s brand of lipstick, shoes or
handbag is a commonly accepted way to add an aura of
reality or consumer aspiration to books aimed at young
readers: just think of “The Gossip Girl,” with that
series’s abundant references to Prada and Burberry. But
what if writers and publishers enlisted companies to
sponsor those branded mentions, as is the widespread
practice in Hollywood?
Authors of two book series have come to separate conclusions: in one case, the writers tried it and then changed their minds; in the other, for a new series to be published next year, the author, who owns a marketing company, said she planned to give corporate sponsorship a chance.
With “Cathy’s Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233,” a genre-bending mystery for young adults by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman that was published in 2006, the authors learned that product placement could be a touchy subject. After their publisher, Running Press, an imprint of Perseus Books Group, revealed that the authors had agreed to have characters wear specific makeup lines made by Cover Girl in exchange for promotional ads for the book on beinggirl.com, a Web site aimed at adolescent girls and run by Procter & Gamble, Cover Girl’s parent, the book came in for criticism. Ralph Nader’s advocacy group, Commercial Alert, urged book review editors to boycott it, and the novelist Jane Smiley wrote a disapproving op-ed article for The Los Angeles Times; The New York Times wrote a critical editorial as well.
Now the novel — which features a series of clues that are given out in voice mail messages, Web sites, letters and other documents included with or referred to in the book — is set to come out in paperback on Monday, and all the references to Cover Girl’s products have been removed. A drawing in the hardcover edition, for instance, shows Cathy wearing “Cover Girl lipgloss ‘Demure,’ ” and “Waterproof Mascara —’Very Black’ ,” but it appears in the paperback version without any makeup noted. And at the end of the hardcover edition, Cathy talks about wearing “a killer coat of Lipslicks in ‘Daring’ “; in the paperback she just says, “a killer coat of lipstick.”
“We did a whole bunch of pretty innovative things with that book,” Mr. Stewart said in a telephone interview. But, he said, the main topic of conversation, “instead of being about the other 18,” was about the product placement.
In “Mackenzie Blue,” on the other hand, a new series aimed at 8- to 12-year-old girls from HarperCollins Children’s Books, product placement is very much a part of the plan. Tina Wells, chief executive of Buzz Marketing Group, which advises consumer product companies on how to sell to teenagers and preteenagers, will herself be the author of titles in the series filled with references to brands. She plans to offer the companies that make them the chance to sponsor the books.
Ms. Wells said she would not change a brand that she felt was at the core of a particular character’s identity merely to cement a marketing partnership. “Mackenzie loves Converse,” she said, referring to the series’s heroine and the popular sneaker brand she favors. “Does Converse want to work with us? I have no clue. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Mackenzie loves Converse.”
However, when asked what she would do if another sneaker company like Nike (one of her clients) wanted to sponsor the books, she said, “Maybe another character could become a Nike girl.”
Ms. Wells, 27, who founded Buzz Marketing when she was just 16, is also seeking a tie-in with a music label to produce a soundtrack for the books. She said she was also interested in enticing companies to sponsor the books in exchange for references to their philanthropic initiatives related to themes like global warming that she plans to address in the story lines; one idea would be to include resource pages at the back of the books.
So, for example, one of the characters in the series, Ally, is the daughter of journalists who end up in the Sudan in one of the books. Ms. Wells suggested she could work with Procter & Gamble, which sponsors projects to donate feminine hygiene products to girls in Africa.
Susan Katz, publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said she was not concerned about a possible backlash against corporate sponsorship in books aimed at such a young audience. “If you look at Web sites, general media or television, corporate sponsorship or some sort of advertising is totally embedded in the world that tweens live in,” Ms. Katz said. “It gives us another opportunity for authenticity.”
As for “Cathy’s Book,” David Steinberger, president of Perseus, said the criticism of the Cover Girl relationship did not affect sales. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of sales, the book has sold 43,000 copies in hardcover. “ ‘Cathy’s Book’ surpassed our expectations and hit best-seller lists in every country,” Mr. Steinberger said, “because teens responded to the writing, the graphics and the interactivity.”
Mr. Weisman, an author of “Cathy’s Book,” said in an e-mail message on Friday that he had only just informed an executive with Procter & Gamble that the Cover Girl references had been removed from the paperback. “There was no expectation that the cross promotion would extend past the hardcover launch/ edition,” Mr. Weisman wrote. He added that he and the executive were discussing future marketing relationships. A spokeswoman for beinggirl.com confirmed that discussions were continuing.
Mr. Stewart and Mr. Weisman have written a follow-up, called “Cathy’s Key,” which comes out in May. While there are mentions of some brands like TV Guide and BlackBerry, there are no marketing tie-ins, Mr. Stewart said. And this time some of the brands are just made up. Referring to a can of breath-freshening spray that plays a role in the plot, Mr. Stewart said, “To the best of my knowledge, there is no such thing as Cool Peppermint Mouth Mist.”