What sort of car does your favourite hero drive? What's their favourite T-shirt? Do you really care? Paul O'Brien does, as he looks at the thorny issue of product placement in comics.
24 April 2006

Product placement is back on the agenda, and this time people actually seem to be paying some attention to it. In fact, this isn't a new phenomenon - I wrote about a previous batch of Marvel product placement, involving the Truth anti-smoking campaign, as far back as February 2003.

'DC intend to publish RUSH CITY, a miniseries which exists to promote the Pontiac Solstice.' This time, however, Marvel and DC are being much more open about it, and the prospect of increasingly brazen product placement seems imminent. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal informs us that we can look forward to four months of Dodge Calibers in the Spider-Man titles. DC clearly consider that this isn't nearly obnoxious enough, and intend to publish RUSH CITY, a six issue miniseries which exists to promote the Pontiac Solstice. The title character is set to appear in four different Batman titles before his series begins, lest his Pontiac Solstice go unnoticed. (DC claim that the Pontiac Solstice will be as essential to this character as the Aston Martin is to James Bond ? a difficult proposition to swallow, given that James Bond only became associated with Aston Martins after several films, many years after the character was created.)

Product placement is something of a vexed issue. The classic argument in favour of the practice goes something along these lines. Firstly, it's not going to compromise the artistic integrity of the project, honest, so there's nothing wrong with earning a bit of extra money on the side from some unobtrusive placement. Secondly, using real products adds verisimilitude to the project.

Point one is arrant nonsense. For a start, the claim that the advertiser exercises no editorial control is at best only technically true. Advertisers are unlikely to be happy if their product is treated disrespectfully. Publishers want their advertisers to be happy, so they will come back for more. It may well be the case that advertisers have no right of veto. The economic reality is that they don't need one. The whole arrangement compromises editorial independence to start with.

Even if the item is included as a mere background detail, the requirement for it to be given prominence compromises the integrity of the artwork. Quality is in the details. Set dressing and choice of clothing tell you a lot about the characters. Background elements are essential to composition. There is no such thing as an irrelevant background element which can easily be substituted for an advert. Unless, of course, you're a hack ? you can't compromise the artistic integrity of a work that never had any to start with. There will, of course, be those happy moments when the product in question actually is appropriate and would have been chosen freely by the creators anyway. But it defies credibility that this will apply to more than a handful of cases.

Point two is superficially more persuasive. It is indeed true that we live in a heavily branded world and that fiction appears artificial by not including the brand names we see all around us. Most fiction takes place in a parallel universe where Starbucks doesn't exist. A more believable world would feature more well-known brand names. The problem is that it wouldn't necessarily show those brand names in a wholly favourable light.

Besides, if anything, creators and publishers are overcautious in staying away from real world brand names. Trade mark dilution is a genuine concern for some companies ? Xerox famously spent years paying their lawyers to stamp out any use of the word "xerox" as a synonym for "photocopy." But if you're using the word "Starbucks" to refer to Starbucks, in a non-libellous way, then you really should be okay. For all the excessive nervousness regularly displayed about real-world brand names, it's perfectly possible to use them if you know what you're doing. Max Barry's novel JENNIFER GOVERNMENT, which features real-world brand names throughout and has Nike as the villains, is a striking example.

'THE HIRE is, perhaps, an example of how to do product placement correctly.' Now, in fairness, this sort of thing is not entirely unprecedented in comics. Back in 2004, Dark Horse published THE HIRE, a miniseries which existed solely to advertise BMW cars. THE HIRE is, perhaps, an example of how to do product placement correctly, or at least acceptably. It was unashamed about its status as a glorified advert. As with the series of short films that inspired it, the approach was to hire respected artists/directors, and invited them to do something with the simple premise of Clive Owen driving a BMW. It was openly identified as a product commissioned by BMW themselves, and therefore an undisguised advert. Even the Dark Horse book was clearly identified as a BMW product. You might not necessarily be interested in paying money for a 22-page advert, but at least there's nothing surreptitious about it. It screams its status from the rooftops.

RUSH CITY itself may fall into the same category; the use of the lead character as a guest star in four Batman titles, on the other hand, is difficult to view as anything other than advertising material encroaching into other people's stories. It really doesn't matter how much editors, publishers and creators insist that they're perfectly fine with the whole deal; only the truly gullible and stupid, or those ignorant of the background to the character, will ever be able to look at him without experiencing him as an advertisement. And if you don't see that as compromising your story, then god help you.

The essential problem with product placement is that if the readers notice it, they rebel against it. It breaks the compact between reader and creator. Of course we know that publishers are ultimately about the money, but for the duration of the story, we don't want to believe that. We want to believe that we're sitting around the campfire and they're telling us a story. The moment we realize that you're trying to advertise to us in the middle of the story, our experience is damaged, and our trust is broken. We stop liking you as much. And you really should care whether we like you, because your own brand is built on trust. Naked greed runs counter to the brand image that both Marvel and DC want to project to their readers. Crossovers and variant covers can be presented (with some legitimacy) as giving the readers what they want; product placement is next to impossible to present favourably.

'Working a company logo into a comic book simply can?t be done without being noticed.' This is less of a problem in films and TV, because set dressing requires a lot of real-world objects to be used anyway. There are plenty of opportunities for a product to be in shot without hammering it home. Working a company logo into a comic book is a different matter, and simply can't be done without being noticed. Marvel's approach is just to bang the logo into the art, where it's immediately obvious as the product of a different hand. DC's approach, apparently, is to whack you repeatedly in the face with the product while yelling at you through a loudhailer.

Ironically, the Wall Street Journal identifies this reaction against advertising as precisely the thing that's supposedly driving advertisers to product placement in the first place. "Notoriously hard to reach," observes the journalist, "young adult males are known to be wary of traditional sales pitches, especially ones that get in the way of their entertainment." Well, with an attitude like that, young adult males will be just fucking ecstatic when they buy an issue of BIRDS OF PREY guest starring a character who exists solely to advertise the Pontiac Solstice, won't they?

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