It was early in the year 2000, and I was standing in my aunt’s kitchen, trying to destroy the world. No, I wasn’t having a premonition about all the terrible things that would happen in 2016, I was trying to come up with a new world to write about.
See, I had friends who were writers, and they were writing about these crazy, complicated futures, with technology and people with amazing powers. Meanwhile, I was writing about assassins in present day. As much as I liked the story I was writing, I also wanted to write about people with cool powers, so I decided to push myself to come up with an interesting new world. Not an alien world, but an Earth that was different from the one we had now.
For some reason (I forget why), I wanted to avoid big cities. If I was destroying the world, maybe I could do it in a way that smashed the land into bits, and the biggest pieces left over were the size of small cities. Then these islands could be grouped together based on proximity, and joined by overseas highways, and people could travel between them!
But it would be difficult to build up all these new cities if the entire world had been smashed to pieces, so maybe I should keep one large bit intact. Then, once the remaining people had recovered from the huge war that had decimated their world, they would have the resources to go out and build up the islands for habitation.
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.