Out Takes a Lot of Bottle
by Bill Fitzhugh
If, in the final accounting, I am remembered for nothing else,
at least I will be remembered for being the man who ruined literature once and
for all. Of course there are those who will argue Jackie Collins beat me to this
claim long ago -- and she may in fact have won in the distaff category -- but
according to more than a few folks over here, I am the winner. So if you’re
looking for some way into the record books, look elsewhere. I’ve beaten you to
this one. The ruination of the literary form known as the novel has been laid at
my feet, so bugger off -- this one’s mine.
How did I do it? Simple. I became the first novelist to use product placement in
a work of fiction. Product placement, for you literary purists, is a form of
advertising previously restricted to the famously whorish mediums of television
and film. One of the earliest and most famous examples of product placement was
in Steven Spielberg’s 1982 film E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial.
The way I understand it, the script originally called for the kids in the story
to use M&M candies to lure the wrinkled little space guest into their home.
However when the producers contacted the candy maker and suggested they pay for
the privilege of having their product featured in the film the candy maker
balked. So the producers contacted the makers of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups
and asked if they would be interested. They were and sales of Reese’s soared
when the film was released. Ever since then film makers and advertisers have
expanded this unholy alliance to the point where product placement is all but
required in Hollywood movies. When MI-6 gives James Bond a BMW you can rest
assured somebody gave one to the film’s producer as well.
Flash forward sixteen years. I’m in the throes of writing Cross Dressing,
a satire on religion and advertising. My research has me neck deep in obscure
Catholic theology and modern advertising theory when (finally) a thought occurs
to me. Sadly it wasn’t an idea about character development or an ingenious
plot twist. Rather it was about how to get a little publicity when the book is
Now you may ask why such crass considerations would ever cross my mind. The
answer is, again, simple. I’m in the business of writing books. Unfortunately
it’s not enough just to write them, they must be marketed as well. And, in the
U.S. at least, publishers aren’t famous for how well they market the books of
their mid-list authors. Without marketing, fewer people know about your book.
When fewer people know about your book, fewer buy it. When fewer people buy your
book, you’ll soon be looking for a new publishing contract. Thus the crass
Before my first novel (Pest Control) was published I asked my agent what
sort of publicity campaign the publisher would do for it. He said they would
send copies to reviewers and hope for the best. Fortunately debut novels are
considered ‘newsworthy,’ especially when they sell to a major Hollywood
studio as Pest Control did, thus the book received a fair amount of
attention in the press.
When my second book, The Organ Grinders, was about to be published I was
told to lower my expectations about press coverage. As my U.S. publicist
explained, "Author publishes second novel" isn’t considered a
newsworthy item. Absent an ‘angle’ I was told, it was nigh unto impossible
to get PR for any novel not written by a best-selling author.
So I was left to my own devices to find an ‘angle’ for Cross Dressing.
As I said, it came to me while writing. Since my protagonist is a hot shot in
the advertising business and since much of the book is a satire about American
hyper-consumerism, I thought it would be considered ‘newsworthy’ (and
ironic) if I made Cross Dressing the first novel to feature product
My U.S. editor the idea but said I would have to make the deal as they didn’t
have a clue where to start. After a few quick calls I had a list of companies
interested in helping to make literary history. For reasons of artistic
integrity and pure laziness I wanted a product that was already in the book. I
felt this strategy would shield me from accusations of writing to accommodate a
"sponsor" while simultaneously saving me the trouble of writing any
The novel doesn’t feature anyone enjoying fast food or applying cosmetics, but
there were a few scenes involving cocktails. Then another idea hit me. I had
sold the book’s film rights to Universal Studios. Universal (at the time) was
owned by Seagrams. Two calls resulted in a deal wherein I would replace generic
references to drinks with Seagrams’ products.
Now, before all this happened, I was under the impression that money changed
hands in a product placement deal. Since I was doing this for publicity, not
cash, I thought I might do the deal for a single dollar, or I would donate the
money to a charity. However, when I discovered the deals were typically done in
exchange for the "placed" product (in this instance, hooch) I had to
reevaluate my position. It would be more than a little insensitive to send a
couple of cases of single malt scotch to the Diseased Liver Association, am I
right? So I accepted (and disposed of) them in my own selfless way.
Just before the book came out, my publisher sent copies of Cross Dressing
to magazines and newspapers, with letters explaining the product placement deal
in the hopes of generating some publicity. It worked. Brill’s Content
and Publisher’s Weekly did articles on the deal. Time Magazine
and Entertainment Weekly both made mention of it as well.
The only problem was, no one seemed to get the joke. It was clear from the
articles that certain people in the book world were taking exception to the
deal. The gist of what they’re saying was that I had cheapened either
literature in general, or the novel form in particular.
For example, in Sean Gullette’s article for Brill’s Content (June
2000) Jonathan Galassi, editor-in-chief at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux is quoted
as saying, "Well, I think it’s pretty lame."
Well, imagine my shame. Such a stinging indictment was hard to swallow, but what
really bothered me was that poor Johnny Boy just didn’t get it. And he
wasn’t alone. Since so many are having a problem getting this, allow me to
Cross Dressing lampoons the advertising industry. To so something as
brazen as product placement in something as sacred as a novel is to make a joke
on the subject. Now, had I done a product placement deal in a book that had
nothing to do with advertising, that would have been selling out. As I said
earlier, if I’d had to add drinking scenes to the book to accommodate the
product, that, too, would have been selling out. But what I did was to name the
drinks that were already in the book -- in fact the names are so overstated in
ad-speak as to be a joke. Get it? In a book ridiculing advertising? Ta-da!
While I had anticipated a mild backlash to the deal, it never occurred to me
anyone would attack it so viciously. I mean the notion that my product placement
deal could harm literature in some way my novels haven’t already done is just
plain silly. As if by this time next year, E. Annie Proulx will be revising her
latest manuscript to oblige a corporate sponsor, substituting a nicely placed
scene involving the ‘new condom for cowboys’ at the expense of mood or real
"But Bill," someone cried, "doesn’t this deal fundamentally
cheapen the novel as a form of literature? No, of course not. You want to know
what does? The pitiful advances so many novelists get. That’s what cheapens
the novel. But me? I lack the influence, thank you very much.
Still, there are some tut-tutting critics who are saying I crossed a line no one
else had dared before. As if there are thousands of authors out there who had
considered doing a product placement deal for their novel but decided the whole
transaction would sully literature and, thus, in defense of the Muses they
decided not to do it.
Pu-leeze. All I can say is, that’s pretty lame.
[For full details on the product placement deal, see the June 2000 issue of Brill’s
Content. For less than full details on the deal, see the March 24, 2000
issue of Entertainment Weekly or the May 1, 2000 issue of Time
Article originally appeared in The Guardian,
Monday, November 6, 2000. Reprinted with permission.
Visit Bill's terrific website at http://billfitzhugh.com.