June 19, 2006
Cathy's Book and Product Placement

Several posts in the last couple of months on our blog have been dedicated to product placement and product integration in television programming, but the news that received some play last week of a Cover Girl novel crossover reminds us once again at how well books can cover product placement as well.

Cover Girl, along with parent company Procter & Gamble, will be working with Running Press, part of Perseus, to promote Cover Girl throughout several references in a new novel called Cathy's Book, written by Jordan Weisman and Sean Stewart. The book will be inspired by the principles of alternate reality games (ARGs), and the authors previously worked on "The Beast" and "I Love Bees."

The novel will include references to Cover Girl lipsticks and eyeliners, among other things, and Cover Girl will promote the release of the novel. According to a post by Cory Doctorow at Boing Boing, the novel included references to makeup brands but were only changed after a deal was put in place with Cover Girl.

But, it didn't take long to get the non-profits after them. Commercial Alert, a non-profit organization dedicated to "protecting communities against commercialism," have contacted book reviewers across the country, requesting that they boycott the novel because of its product placement.

Apparently, these organizations have particular problems with this book, as it is being marketed to teens. The problem here is probably not as much that the products are being used but that the company is receiving extra money for that placement. While the company has made the distinction that the book clearly called for a product there and that the deal came organically from that, Commercial Alert is not quite so excited.

The publishers, Perseus, quickly came to the book's and the authors' defense, with CEO David Steinberger saying that "calling for a review boycott is a form of censorship." In this case, I have to agree with the authors. While I understand Commercial Alert's sensitivity to commercialism and have seen plenty of great works ruined by product placement, this is a little different. If the product placement is organic, I don't think it's a problem, especially since we live in a branded world. And the book seems to have much more of a point than simply advertising Cover Girl. Steinberger says that the authors have a right to include these placements, "incorporating real-world elements consistent with their vision."

Further, I agree that the worst approach of all is attaching reviewers instead of engaging in public debate about product placement. What Commercial Alert is trying to do is end the debate before it starts, to eliminate the other side completely and not allow the book to get reviewed. And that's more dangerous to our rights as Americans as the commercialism of Perseus Publishing could ever be.

Thanks to Joshua Green for passing this along.