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Fiona Snyckers

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Will Write For Mojitos

There are some books that you look forward to with a real, palpitating excitement. You nag your local bookshop day and night, and when faced with an unavoidable two-week wait, you purchase them on your Kindle instead.

Did I mention that I have a Kindle? Well, I do, and I love it with a deep and abiding passion.

But getting back to those books you just can’t wait for. ‘Mini Shopaholic’ by Sophie Kinsella was one such. I am a mega-fan, having read the whole series through at least five times. Confronted with the unwelcome news that it would only release in South Africa in mid-October, I cracked and ordered a copy on my Kindle. Even though, I really, really wanted to hold the actual book in my hands.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The book is just as much fun as its predecessors, although possibly somewhat short on narrative tension. But what it lacks in suspense it makes up for in BlackBerry references. Yes, you read that correctly. ‘Mini Shopaholic’ is absolutely peppered with references to BlackBerry. Every single character in the novel owns one and is regularly described as talking, texting, or browsing on it.

Now, I have absolutely no way of knowing whether this is a paid-for product placement. All I know is that there couldn’t be more BlackBerry references in the book if it were a launch party for the latest Torch. Either way, BlackBerry must be tickled pink. ‘Mini Shopaholic’ debuted at number one on the UK book lists, and will certainly go on to command millions of readers worldwide.

As I say, my thoughts on the subject are pure speculation. But I find it mystifying that a staggeringly successful author, who must be a £ millionaire several times over, could have been persuaded to run product placements in her book. What kind of money would have to change hands to overcome one’s very natural squeamishness about selling about selling one’s soul to the devil?

On the other hand, once you start selling your writing for money, does it really matter how the cheque is divided up? Let’s say your publisher pays R10 for your story, and a sponsor pays another R2, who’s keeping score?

The movie industry has been doing it for years. We’re all familiar with the camera that pans slowly across a suburban kitchen, lingers lovingly over a bottle of Pepsi or a box of Pop Tarts, and finally settles on the heroine’s face. We all know that serious moolah has changed hands to make this happen. We greet each new product placement with no more than a wry smile, and don’t let it spoil our enjoyment of the movie.

It’s difficult to put my finger on why I have different standards for fiction and for movie-making. It may be because I perceive fiction to be somehow a more ‘sincere’ art form than film. Or it may simply be a lingering naivety that will disappear as novels become increasingly colonised by marketers.

Perhaps I’m just feeling a little sensitive after being approached by one of those ‘Tweet for Money’ sites on my Twitter account. It happens to everyone, I gather, once you acquire a certain number of followers. Now, I, of course, drew myself up to my full height, looked down my nose at them, and declaimed, “Get thee hence, sinner, and trouble me no more.”

Or at least, clicked on the Ignore button.

But I couldn’t help wondering how many of the tweeters I follow succumbed to the temptation and are now shilling for Big Corporate.

“OMG!!!! Woolies Choc Crunch tuna fish is just DELISH!” I see tweets like this on a daily basis. Are they all some form of paid-for product placement? And am I the only one who doesn’t already know this? It’s all rather worrying.

There is certainly a presumption of sincerity attached to any form of blogging, micro or otherwise. Blogging is supposed to be a process whereby the blogger drops his or her public mask and talks directly to the world. That’s what makes it so seductive to the reader. Most of us would rather find a writer’s blog than click on their official fan page. We expect the latter to be nothing more than PR spin, but hope that the former will consist of the writer speaking directly to the world.

But is there really any difference between allowing a company to advertise on your blog, and doing their work for them by blogging about how much you love their product? I’m inclined to think that there is. This is also something I’ve been forced to consider as I get approached more often to host advertising on my website. I’ve said no to the online casinos, but may possibly say yes to more reputable concerns.

What I will not do, in any circumstances, is get paid to promote a product. I mention brand names all the time – in my novels, short stories, blog, website, Facebook and Twitter – but these mentions are frequently uncomplimentary, and never sponsored. Ever.

I’m aware, however, that my squeamishness is a changeable thing. It is dictated by what I’m accustomed to. At the moment, I’m accustomed to product placement on TV, and no longer flinch at it. I positively wince at it in fiction. This may change as marketing infiltrates every arena of our interaction, until we become branded from birth – Moxyland style. But until then I’ll be sandbagging the trenches and keeping my powder dry.

Vive la resistance!


Recent comments:

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Helen</a>
    October 1st, 2010 @16:43 #

    It's complicated, isn't it? I've always been hopeless at brands, but I remember when they all started infesting books, movies etc and being mystified. Who the hell was Manolo Blahblah (turned out to be a cobbler) and why did he/she/it induce such palpitations? The trouble is that a lot of writers sprinkled brand names around with "sincerity", for scene-setting and character-building purposes (if the suave stranger bought you Dom Perignon rather than Blue Nun, you knew he was classy). So it must have been a quick hop for marketers: "Well, you'll be mentioning products anyway, so why not mine?"

    PS: I'll write for Pongracz -- any takers?

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Fiona</a>
    October 1st, 2010 @17:35 #

    The brands for authenticity thing - yes, I do that a lot. It's practically compulsory for a chick-lit writer. And, seriously, feed me mojitos and I'll tweet about it, with abandon.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Lauren Beukes</a>
    Lauren Beukes
    October 4th, 2010 @14:27 #

    Brands are the closest writers and artists can get to De Medici-style patrons these days.

    They're more powerful and more monied than royalty or governments AND inherently more interested in promoting culture as a way of leveraging their own cool. It's a trade-off.

    I don't think it's a bad thing, especially cos all that mohito-drinking, never mind taking months off work to get serious wordage in, is expensive - but it has to be handled in a very open way.

    Sekrit backhanded payments for blogging or tweeting about a restaurant or a clothing line or an alcohol brand or product placement that doesn't come with a big, fat, cheeky disclaimer* (which is how I would do it, if I were to do it) is dodgy.

    @CapeTown_Girl (whose previous job of fairly cynical cool-hunting and seeding of brands helped inform some of Moxyland) is a prime example. She's a brand-whore, sure, but she's totally open about it.

    Of course, I'm speaking as someone who convinced Red Bull to help pay for the Moxyland launch (a book fundamentally about the evils of branding and corporate sponsorship and a soft-drinks with "enhancing" powers) and put an ad on the backpage of Zoo City, for the soundtrack by African Dope.

    I don't think I'd ever consider product placement because it would hurt my credibility as writerly observer/commentator. Maybe it's from working in magazines - I felt a little part of the writing fairy wither up and die every time I had to write advertorial. But it's also that readers need to be able to trust you. Underhanded product placement is not the way to go.

    BUT I'm totally open to brand ambassadorship. Comedians and musicians and soap stars get free gear, why shouldn't writers?

    Ditto ads in books, as long as it doesn't get in the way of the story or compromise the integrity of the book or the author (Unless it's ironic. Ironic exemptions are always okay).

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">Louis Greenberg</a>
    Louis Greenberg
    October 4th, 2010 @15:00 #

    There is no me in brand, Lauren.

  • <a href="" rel="nofollow">S.L. Grey</a>
    S.L. Grey
    October 4th, 2010 @15:01 #

    But there is in 'brand name'.

  • Ben - Editor
    Ben - Editor
    October 4th, 2010 @15:41 #

    My head now spinneth.


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