I was asked once at a convention by a fan of the Black Womb series if I had accepted any money from the Coca-Cola company to feature their product in my novels. This was in response to that reader noticing — quite astutely — that one of that series’s protagonists, Cathy Kennessy, is exclusively seen drinking Coca-Cola. Cherry Coke, to be exact.
The short answer to the question of “Do I accept money from Coca-Cola to feature their product?” Is an easy-to-give no, but rather than leave it at that, I think the question deserves a little unpacking, because there was a time (years ago) when this really wouldn’t have been a question. But now media saturation of product placement has gotten to the point that any time we see a product in our art of in our fiction, we have to ask ourselves: is this Product Placement, Native Advertising, or K-Mart Realism?
Let’s start by looking at each of these, respectfully.
Product Placement is something we’ve all become familiar with, as it is in our face all the time. Sometimes, it’s more egregious than others. I remember seeing a movie (and I honestly can’t recall what it was, sorry) recently where a couple was getting into a car to escape someone, inciting a high-speed chase. I’m assuming this was an action movie, but it may have been a horror film. In any event, the characters get in and we cut away from them as the door closes to a shot a the car’s tail lights and them speeding away. Well that’s fine, that’s a pretty standard way of telling a story. But, at the last second, the camera tilted jarringly downward to get the silver-lettered brand name of the vehicle into center frame before the car sped off. As someone who studied cinematography (albeit briefly) this is a blatant product placement. The camera shifted in such a way that no professional cameraman would do it accidentally: he’s be fired. It was intentional product placement, and worse, it’s to the detriment of the shot and the story that shot should be telling.
I think for me that’s the line between acceptable product placement for me personally: does it take me out of the story? And that line is going to be different for different people. For example, the Transformers movies have reportedly been some of the most lucrative product placement deals in history, as the main characters of the films themselves are in fact GM vehicles. But that never takes me out of the movies, even the glamor shots of the cars when they first show up: it doesn’t say to me: look how cool GM is, it says: look how cool Bumblebee is. Some will have a different experience, of course. I find the product placement in the later seasons of Dexter to be some of the most damning, as they will frame the brand name on his stool while the action is almost happening off-panel.
But this has been quite a long digression. The point of product placement is that (or should be) that products will be needed to move the story along and make it so the character’s world seems like our world. This is K-Mart realism, which we’ll get to in a second. What changes this to product placement is that, instead of making up your own product (like Friends did with its “Big Brown Bags”) or just going with whatever feels right, the creators basically open up the bidding: whichever car company places the highest bid, that is the company that gets their car driven by the characters.
For my money, good product placement happens when the creators go “Okay, we need a car for the story. Start the bidding.” Bad product placement occurs when the creators go “Okay, we need money. Let’s add a car to this scene so we can get GM to pay.” See the difference there? Story has to come first.
Now Native Advertising is different and far, far more sinister. For an excellent explanation of native advertising, I encourage anyone to check out Last Week Tonight‘s very entertaining segment on the subject:
Native Advertising comes about when an organization — typically a news organization, but really anyone could do it — takes a story that was written or partly written or was paid-to-be written by a sponsor and tries to pass it off as actual content. BuzzFeed does this a lot, but it’s happening more and more with real news outlets, and that’s a dangerous thing, because as John Oliver finds: over half of us can’t tell the difference anymore.
I will say at this point that Cathy drinking Coke is not Product Placement or Native Advertising. However, in preparing for this article, I absolutely tried to secure native advertising. This entire section was going to be about how Coke (the offending product from my literature) sponsored this post. I was going to explain that while most of it was original content, Coca-Cola paid to have the following paragraphs explaining… and then say several paragraphs of whatever Coke reps told me they wanted said. Because hey: Engen is still a small-press publishing company, and some Coca-Cola dollars could go a long way. What i discovered: I cannot figure out how to get my foot in the door to get any of those dolla-dolla bills. Coke didn’t fund this article in any way, shape or form (I’m sad to say).
Despite the fact that I tried to use it for my benefit (and failed): Native Advertising is evil. As consumers we need to be smarter than that so that these companies will stop tricking us as a source of revenue.
This brings us, finally, to K-Mart Realism. I know it sounds weird, but this is a real literary term that, ironically or not, uses the chain of department stores in its title to prove its point. It is an example of itself, and that’s just kinda cool. K-Mart realism is when an author or creator places a product that exists in the real world for the purpose of trying to make their fictional world seem more real. The theory being that when readers or viewers see the “Big Brown Bag” on Friends or the “Brand X- Cola” or whatever, it reminds them that what they’re enjoying is fiction. And you might say: well it is, but as creators it’s our job to suspend the disbelief of those we’re trying to entertain to make the experience more gratifying. Just like grammatical errors or mistakes can take a reader out of a story, so to can obviously-fake products.
Quick disclaimer: this isn’t always true. Sometimes authors parody big brands to make a point or for comedic effect. Kenneth Tam gleefully lampoons the fast-food chain McDonald’s in his Defense Command series, and it works well for two reasons:
- in using a parody name, he can over-exaggerate the characteristics of McDonalds to comedic effect
- and, his series takes place in a far-flung future, so using brands we are not yet familiar with is par-for-the-course. It’s the future, there’s going to be plenty we aren’t familiar with.
But there are also examples where this “making up a brand” is used to a detriment.
In X-Men (second series) #67 (a part of the Operation: Zero Tolerance crossover that was happening at the time), there’s an splash page on the very first page that features the character Sabra’s face reflected in a computer screen, and the computer’s brand is clearly visible: PineApple.
Now that’s kind of clever and is sold by the art — a tiny pineapple logo with a chunk taken out — but it immediately takes you out of the story and reminds you that the X-Men aren’t real. Yes I know the X-Men aren’t real, I’m not an idiot, but its writer Scott Lobdell and artist Carlos Pacheco’s job to convince me they are for 10 minutes while I read their comic, and this fake-brand works against that cause.
Would Apple have sued them had they used an Apple-brand computer? Surely not. I sincerely doubt any company would say no to free publicity, or shun any future free publicity by suing anyone who uses their branded products for anything. No, what I think happened here was greed: I think that Sabra using a computer was a vital and important part of the story. That’s good! That is when K-Mart Realism really has a chance to shine! So the creators decided to use an Apple product for whatever reason, there could be many. It could be that they’re trying to say something about Sabra as a character, or simply that was what Pacheco uses and he used it for artistic reference. Whatever the case, when someone else at Marvel saw this, they clearly approached Apple and asked to be paid to be featured, turning K-Mart Realism into an opportunity for Product Placement dollars. To my mind, this would be okay. This is an example of good Product Placement: the story came first, the story has been served, and now the company that’s publishing it is trying to make some money from it. That to me is no different than selling the book to begin with: it’s all making money off fiction for entertainment.
The bad happens when Apple, for whatever reason (budgetary, conflict-of-interests, whatever) said no. Now Marvel doesn’t want to give away free product placement to this company they were trying to get money out of, so Apple gets changed to PineApple.
Before anyone asks, neither Iceberg Publishing, Marvel Comics, nor Apple paid to be mentioned in this article either. Nobody paid to be mentioned in this article, but should anybody want to pay me after the fact, my door is always open ;). Also, despite my grievance with that fake-product, that issue of X-Men is really quite good. It was the first one I ever bought, and I’ve always remembered it. 🙂
On this topic, I’ve often been asked by aspiring authors at conventions if they should worry or if I worry about being sued by the companies or brands I mention within my novels, such as Coke. This is one of the silliest preconceptions young authors have with regard to writing and publishing fiction: why would they sue? This is free publicity, and suing would only cause trouble for them in the future. Not only that, but if for some insane reason they wanted to sue, there is a crazy amount of legislation that protects creative people and authors from that sort of attack. Most things of that nature are protected from copyright infringement under parody and free speech, two of the cornerstones of all fiction. You have the right to be inspired by the world around you and to use that inspiration in your writing.
I can’t say those who worry about lawsuits are alone in this, though. I was when I started out, too. So much so that, when publishing my fourth book, Roulette, I changed a lengthy sequence talking about The Terminator movies into once that talks about fiction movies based on Kenneth Tam’s real book series, Defense Command. I did this, largely, because I was concerned about being sued by Pacific Western. I knew Ken wouldn’t sue we, because we’re friends :). I even turned it into a tongue-in-cheek in-joke, because in his Defense Command books he references fictional movies based on those same books and how inaccurate they are (to great comical effect), so now those same fiction movies exist in both universes.
That said, my worry was silly, and without offense to Kenneth Tam or Iceberg Publishing, when I switch Roulette over to the international edition this summer, The Terminator references are going back in. Because again: protected under parody and free speech, and nobody is going to sue anyway.
Now I didn’t ask Ken for money for using his series. I didn’t even ask his permission. When I told him, I’m not sure but he may have been a little dismayed (his books are fairly family-friendly and mine… aren’t, and he may have been worried about the connection). But I’m changing it back because it’s supposed to be a moment of K-Mart Realism, where the teen characters act like real teens and just talk about movies as we all would and did, and changes it into a scene about fictional movies the audience has no clue about. It is a disservice to the story.
And that’s what all this boils down to: whether you’re getting paid for it or not, as long as the service of the story is what comes first: you’re doing your job right. Never put ad dollars or fear of retribution before that.
So, after all that has been said, why does Cathy Kennessy drink Cherry Coke? Is it Product Placement, Native Advertising, or K-Mart Realism?
I think it should be obvious by this point in the article, but to just state it for the record: Cathy drinking Cherry Coke is K-Mart Realism. It is a choice made in service of the story and the character, not in service of mining ad-dollars.
The reason I, as an author, chose Coke in general and Cherry Coke in particular? There are a few.
For good or ill, Coke has positioned itself as being a part of Americana. The classic Coke posters from the first half of the 20th century are icons of the time, and are still UN-ironically displayed in malt shoppes and boutiques to invoke a feel for those times. Those original posters sell for gaggles online today. Coke merchandise is bought and collected by people that don’t even drink Coke. Despite being a global company, on this side of the pond they are very much positioned as being All-American — and I wanted Cathy Kennessy to come off as an All-American girl.
Now that might all sound weird coming from a Canadian author, but I say it without a trace of irony meant. Black Womb takes place in America. Just as I wanted Sara to be seen as a rebel, I wanted Cathy to be seen as an All-American good girl. The Girl-Next-Door… a girl right out of those old Coke posters, in other words. I wanted her to represent that time, that innocence, and that feeling. Does she? Results vary. As with all good fiction and good characters, Cathy is polarizing: some love her, some hate her. Is any of that to do with the presence of Coke? Is anyone but me picking up on that symbolism? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe they are without even realizing it. Maybe it’ll just be something for Lit Classes to pick apart and notice and dissect if I ever write a truly great novel and become famous enough to warrant that. None of that matters. What matters is the story, my intentions for putting an item in it, and what you get out of it.
So that’s why Cathy Kennessy drinks Coke, but why is it a Cherry Coke? Well again, a few reasons. A big one is that, when I was writing Black Womb (this is going to date me horribly) it was 2001 and a Canadian Pop-Singer by the name of Amanda Marshall had released a single called Everybody’s Got a Story that featured the line:
… And then take a sip of your Cherry Coke, now who drinks a Cherry Coke?
Who drinks a Cherry Coke? Well, Cathy Kennessy does, for one. It wasn’t just that though, that lyric implies that drinking a Cherry Coke is something that someone odd or free-spirited might do, and despite that being brand-management and yadda-yadda, that was also a part of what I wanted for Cathy. Marshall’s lyric also implied that Cherry Coke was an odd choice, and the flavor is something that isn’t available everywhere like the rest of Coke’s flavors. So when you do see it, it’s memorable, and I definitely wanted Cathy and her scenes to be that.
Also for a literary perspective — and I must stress that this was secondary to my artistic choice and I’m not trying to be vulgar — “cherry” is also and has long been a euphemism for a girl’s virginity. Right or wrong, from a cultural standpoint, virginity implies purity and innocence: also qualities I wanted associated with Cathy. As the series progresses and she makes certain life choices, astute readers may notice she switches to regular Coke (sans Cherry). This not only marks a physical event for her, but a change in her characterization, tone, and attitude as well.
So that’s K-Mart Realism, Product Placement, Native Advertising, and why they exist in the Engen Universe and for Cathy Kennessy. Why does Cathy drink Coke? A multitude of reasons, some practical and some literary. Whether you find it distracting or not, whether it effects you or not, let me know. Your mileage may vary, but it’s different for everyone. I can tell you one thing tho: when I drew the picture of Cathy drinking a Coke at the top of the article, though the distinctive swirl is there, the label is facing away from the camera. Maybe if Coke had been more accessible and forthcoming with their dollars, the label would be facing out 😉
Above all, and I’ll say it one last time: serve the story. Whatever choices you make after that, if you’ve served the story, you’ll be fine.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna go enjoy a Cherry Coke….
…. no, really.
This article was paid for and sponsored by Engen Books.
Well, kinda. Engen Books pays for the website. ;P