One reason I rarely watch any programs on commercial TV, and even find commercial radio irritating, is because of the constant interruptions with commercials that disrupt the flow of the narrative. There are very few occasions when I do watch commercial TV, and it is for the occasional sporting event or The Simpsons and then the commercials fit more naturally into the breaks in the action. Actually, since I rarely watch TV, many of the commercials are novel and quite clever and enjoyable when I see them for the first time. But even during a single game, one tends to see the same commercial repeated many times and however amusing they are at first, by the time the third viewing comes around, they are tiresome.
Advertisers are aware of this viewer irritation and with the arrival of technology that enables viewers to skip commercials altogether have sought to find other ways to draw attention to their products. By now, even the most naïve viewer is aware of product placement. When characters place their sodas on the table with the logo facing the camera, when characters get into a car with its badge visible, most viewers know that money has changed hands to achieve this result.
But apparently even this is not enough. Advertisers are now requesting that the scriptwriters for TV shows actually insert dialogue into their scripts to reinforce the placement. In other words, in addition to showing the box of cereal, you can expect characters to start commenting on how good the cereal tastes or how nutritious it is. Or when the heroes take off in their car after the villains, they might comment on how lucky they are that the car can go from zero to sixty in 4.7 seconds or whatever. The program On The Media reports that scriptwriters are so concerned about being co-opted into being adwriters as well that they are asking for protection in their contracts. Bob Harris reports on seeing one of these script placements already in a program.
One does not find this kind of product placement in books, perhaps because authors of fiction are not usually writing under contract for others. Also actually naming a product, as opposed to simply making it visible, is much harder to do discreetly.
But have you considered the possibility that an entire novel’s plot might be an advertising pitch? My mind is not diabolical enough to have conceived of such a scheme but that idea had occurred to devious minds at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. On The Media reports that this group was concerned that the increasing efforts by consumers to buy cheaper prescription drugs in Canada would eat into the profits of drug companies in the US. Their previous strategy of placing full page advertisements in newspapers warning of some vague danger to consumers was seen as being of limited value.
So Mark Barondess, a consultant to PhRMA, commissioned a novel to be written by first time novelists Julie Chrystyn and Kenin Spivak. Spivak says he was told that the plot was to consist of a group of Bosnian Muslims who, unhappy with the fact that the United States was not supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serbs, launch an attack using tainted drugs on Americans through the Canadian website pharmacies. And many, many thousands of Americans would have to die in the story.
Clever, huh? If the book becomes a bestseller of the kind written by Michael Crichton, then you could see what an effect it might have on public attitudes towards Canadian drugs.
But the plan fell apart. According to Brooke Gladstone, the host of On The Media “Spivak said he chafed under the demand that they dumb down the book to appeal to women, who buy more drugs than men, and that all the terrorists be religious fanatics.”
But writers Spivak and Chrystyn still complied with these requirements only to find their novel being rejected by Barondess and the PhRMA employee on the ground that it was transparent drivel with the potential to backfire.
In fact, PhRMA tried to wash its hands completely of this fiasco, saying that the consultant was acting on his own and that the money paid to the writers, both for writing the book and for killing the commission, was out of the consultant’s own pockets. Meanwhile, the writers have rewritten their work to make it, at least in their own eyes, a better novel. No word yet on when, or if, it will be released.
I see this is an alarming trend. Although PhRMA saw this as an embarrassment and withdrew its participation (or so they say), other industries might not. We should also not assume that only unknown writers will be tempted to write a novel to meet the needs of an industry. The fact that extremely rich actors and celebrities are willing to act in commercials should alert us to the fact that it may only be a matter of time before even best-selling authors start writing made-to-order novels.
It seems unlikely that such novel will promote a particular product. That would be too obvious. It is more likely that it will promote the agenda of a particular industry and be funded by its trade group, like PhRMA. So one can imagine made-to-order novels that denigrate Canadian-style universal health care plans or promote genetically engineered foods.
So the next time some blockbuster novel seems to have a plot that advances the agenda of some industry, it might be a good thing to ask whether it was only the artistic muse that influenced its author. The big industries have the budgets and clout to advertise books heavily and get good reviews placed in influential sources, and turn even the most mediocre novel into a talked-about book.
Best selling author Michael Crichton, who published a book called State of Fear that pooh-poohs global warming does not need to be paid by a specific industry to make money off his books but if some new blockbuster by an unknown author appears that seems to promote some agenda favored by a trade group, it might be good to start asking some questions.
POST SCRIPT 1: Somber milestone
The US today recorded the 1,000th person to be executed since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1977. That the death penalty still exists anywhere in the world boggles my mind. It seems like such a barbaric relic of medieval times.
POST SCRIPT 2: Holiday CircleFest
So as not to end the week on a down note, I thought I would remind everyone that this Sunday, December 4 features Holiday CircleFest, which has a lot of free events including a program of music by the Case University Singers at 7:00pm in the Church of the Covenant, sponsored by the University Protestant Campus Ministries (UPCaM). UPCaM is a terrific organization that I am a member of and support.
Thanks to Paul who brought this to my attention in a comment to a previous post.