Tuesday, February 19, 2008

I'm Going To Keep Hammering On This Issue

Roger Sutton tips us off to a juicy bit of news with his post For Reals? HarperCollins Children’s Books has announced that it will be publishing a new series of books for 8-to-12-year-old girls and will offer companies that make products mentioned in the books the opportunity to become sponsors. The chief executive of a marketing group will write the books, I guess because HarperCollins doesn't get enough manuscript submissions from authors.

Now, personally, I've always felt that parents have a responsibility to stay on top of what their kids are reading. Here's one more reason. Product placement in books for any age group is not a concept that I think the average reader is aware of. Parents really need to educate themselves about this so they can educate their kids.

What's more, if it becomes a common practice, English teachers are going to need to address it as part of literature discussion. And not just to protect their students from being manipulated. There's a craft issue involved with product placement.

Years ago, "brand" writing was often seen in adult fiction. At that time, it wasn't product placement. No one was trying to make any money off it. No one was trying to sell anything to readers. It was just a quick and dirty way for writers to describe characters--they were described in terms of what they owned.

The problem with this--and the problem with product placement, too--is that unless readers have seen the products named, they have no idea what they look like and thus the description is meaningless. Jane Smiley explained what I'm talking about back when Cathy's Book was published. Describing characters in terms of the brand names of the items they own and use tells us nothing about how those characters look. It might tell us a bit about their attitudes or social class, but only, as I said, in a quick and dirty way.

So here's the issue I keep coming back to with these product placement books: We're not just talking about taking advantage of young people, which is certainly not to be taken lightly. We're also talking about writing quality, something publishing companies shouldn't be taking lightly.

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