Product Placement in Genre Fiction

Recently, I got into an interesting discussion with an (visual) artist friend of mine about some of the differences between so-called modern entertainment and genre science fiction. One thing that has always struck me as interesting is the prevalence of what we would today call “product placement.”

It’s not a recent thing, as far as popular media goes. We were talking about the new James Bond movie coming out shortly, which is the 24th in the series. For the previous movie, a certain Latin American beer company had paid a tremendous amount of money for their product to appear in Bond’s hands in an important way, and they milked that for a major global advertising campaign. But that is not a new thing. Anyone who has read the early Bond novels by Fleming will recognize the long list of products that encompass Bond’s breakfast each morning, or his wardrobe, etc.

In those cases, Fleming appeared to be specifically placing Bond in a particular stratum of British society (a carefully striated civilization to begin with). We know what jam he prefers, what shirts he wears, etc. Even his personal variant on a martini says a lot about him (and frequently spurs wonderful flame wars on the interwebs over whether or not he’s doing it right. I have no opinion, not being a martini drinker.)

But when you look at things outside the twentieth century, wandering into the realms of distant science fiction, the amount of name dropping falls off. I could talk about Koensayr Corporation, but only the most devoted nerds would be able to understand the reference without first consulting the googles. And that just tells you what my favorite starship is. (And only the truly nerdy will understand the importance of when Lex Luthor steals forty cakes.)

And granted, it may just be me, or I’m not reading the right books, or something. I think back to Doc Smith’s Lensman books and he was wonderful about dropping names everywhere. I can’t be the only kid who wanted to own a Lewiston or a DeLameter growing up.

So here’s the question we were ruminating upon over beers: When the writer goes to that level of detail, to inject the name of the factory that built the spaceship, or the name of the soda pop that the hero pulls from his fridge at the end of a hot, busy day, does that add to the story for you or distract?

I can’t be an impartial judge in this one, because I’ve done it. In my story Moscow Gold, I wanted to include the make and model of the car that the villains are driving. Fabulous Publisher Babe(tm) quietly suggested that I not use the name of a real car maker from the day, even in my alternate diesel-punk universe. Did you know that there is a wiki page listing EVERY known defunct car maker, ever?  Seriously, it’s huge. You want to lose a day? Go wander down that rabbit hole sometime. I did.

But I had a reason. The chances are extremely slim, but north of zero, however far north, that I might manage to run into a troll who happened to own the rights to the car manufacturer I picked blindly from a hat, and that person would come after me with a bitch and DMCA. After all, nobody would mind Bond suddenly wearing their shirt in a book, or imbibing their soft drink, but they’re going to be less than enthusiastic if that same item suddenly pops up in the hands of the bad guy. Unless they specifically paid you money for it. (At that point, there is no such thing as bad publicity if you can control the narrative.  Because when people get to arguing over the topic, a much wider audience will become exposed to it and suddenly wonder what the fuss is. That means sales.)

But will you still be able to eat a whopper in a distopian future where all restaurants are Taco Bell? Will Coca-Cola still be the pause that refreshes, say, one thousand years into the future?

This is on my mind because I am about to publish a new Jessica Keller novel that takes place in 13,441 CE. And I just finished the first draft on the third Javier Aritza story, and it takes place in 7,548 CE. We’re still human, but what the hell would we order when we walk into a bar? What would we grab from a convenience store at 3 in the morning?

Do you, the reader, want to know what brand of burritos keeps Javier going? Or what brand of distilled spirit Jessica Keller consumes when she’s between assignments and doesn’t have to be ON constantly?

I’ll be starting to work on a new novel (series) shortly, set in a variant modern era. As in, last Tuesday, but with POWER. Would Kai Di’s choice of handbag maker influence your thinking? Do you want to know what kind of car she drives, if it doesn’t factor centrally to the story? (Everybody knows Bond drives an Astin-Martin. I suspect they’ve stayed in business as long as they have in part on the strength of that association, which once upon a time conveyed posh to the right folks.)

I don’t have answers. I have questions.

But I would like you to think about the next few books you read and see what level of product placement they contain. And let me know how it made you feel. I do read all comments, and respond. I get direct emails with questions as well and try to jump on those directly.

So let me know, okay?

shade and sweet water


west of the mountains, WA

2 thoughts on “Product Placement in Genre Fiction

  1. Beth

    First, I would like to say that I have really enjoyed your stories. I have read all I could find, lol, some more than once.

    I love sci-fi. Mainly because it is non-reality and allows the imagination room to soar. However it must be grounded in reality. Humans tend to forget anything that is not truly relevant to their own realm. Therefore it is much more likely that products will be given totally different names in the future and may also be made from totally different substances. I tend to read quickly enough to see a movie when I read, not words but if the writing is off or the grammar or spelling is poor it slows my progress to words not pictures. Putting product names into the context is fine but a present day product appearing after a galactic collapse just slows the picture to words.

    I love your characters, please take the time to write books. Books full of short stories I have already read just make me frustrated when I want more of Keller or Suvi and Doyle and …

    1. Barry Melius

      Product placement>rarely and briefly(‘he Googled it’/’as a sleek Tesla disappeared into the shadows’),to set the mood or describe a character,but not to impress the reader with how cool you are or how much you know.

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