In a story in the business section of Monday’s New York Times, there was a discussion of product placement in self-published (or small publisher-published) e-books.
Naturally, my first thought was, How can this be applied to comics?
First, let me start with a few definitions. There is a difference between product placement, such as having a character on White Collar drive a Ford Taurus and so-called “advertorial content,” or specially produced web content about the Ford Taurus driven on White Collar. One is a lucrative part of the creative process, and the other is, essentially, a licensed deal.
Comics have a long tradition of licensing characters to advertisers. Baby boomers have fond memories of the one-page adventures that showed how something as simple and delicious as a Hostess fruit pie could help solve crime. More recently, DC produced a bunch of ads for Subway showing how the avocados in their sandwiches helped Green Lantern save galaxies.
As far as I know, there have been no explicit acts of product placement in mainstream comics. Perhaps I’m being naive. In any case, if there are, they are not very effective in that I have not noticed them.
Would they make any difference? Would you, average consumer, be more likely to be a Ford Taurus if you saw Batman drive one? At least on White Collar, we see an actual car drive through an actual city, even if it is Toronto. One can observe the product being used by a flesh-and-blood human being, albeit an attractive, well-dressed one.
Not every appearance by a real product in entertainment is the result of product placement. Stephen King will often mention plebeian items like Excedrin or Turtle Wax in his books, and these mentions ground the characters in some semblance of reality. No agency is shelling out money for this. If they did, they would demand approval.
In any case, product placement in mainstream superhero comics would probably be too expensive to be worthwhile. Warner Bros. is not going to let Batman drive the aforesaid Taurus in the comics without first making a hefty profit for letting him drive one in the movies. The same goes for Disney.
That’s not parallel to what the Times story was about. In the story, the author got paid to include mentions of Sweet’n’Low in her book.
I’m not a big fan of artificial sweeteners, but I know a lot of people who are. They often have strong feelings about which brand is their favorite. I could probably read that book without noticing the placements. At the same time, I probably wouldn’t think, “This character has such a rich and satisfying life, one I, too, would like to have. I suppose I should eat more Sweet’n’Low.”
Would product placement be good for independent comics? Maybe. At the very least, it could help some creators make a profit, something I strongly support.
Would it compromise artistic integrity? It probably depends on the product and the creative team, and the way the deal is negotiated. For example, I’m writing a story now, in which my protagonist, a knitter, struggles to find her true calling in a complex world. I wouldn’t accept a deal with the United States Army for her to enlist and find meaning in her life, not for any amount.
But hand-dyed cashmere? In a heartbeat.
Who am I kidding. I would do it just to look at the color guide.