Brand Sponsorship of YA Novels?

As a major YA novel fan, this made me want to cry.

A NYT article this week discusses what happened with the innovative and bestselling “Cathy’s Book” and what is in the plans for a new tween series, “Mackenzie Blue.”

After Running Press/Perseus Books, publishers of Cathy’s Book, revealed that they had agreed to have the characters wear particular brands/lines of makeup in the novel, they experienced a big backlash from public advocacy groups and authors alike. The Press has issued a revised paperback edition with the specific product references removed.

The Cathy’s Book fiasco would feel like a victory if there weren’t other attempts – such as Mackenzie Blue – waiting in the wings. Harper Collins has hired not an author, but a marketing executive to write these books. A marketing exec who specializes, of course, in marketing to teens and pre-teens. *shudder* The NYT article quotes this woman explaining how the partnerships will work:

Ms. Wells said she would not change a brand that she felt was at the core of a particular character’s identity merely to cement a marketing partnership. “Mackenzie loves Converse,” she said, referring to the series’s heroine and the popular sneaker brand she favors. “Does Converse want to work with us? I have no clue. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Mackenzie loves Converse.”

However, when asked what she would do if another sneaker company like Nike (one of her clients) wanted to sponsor the books, she said, “Maybe another character could become a Nike girl.”

Oh, well, that’s a relief! For a moment there I was worried that corporate sponsorships might influence content! (<–sarcasm) (…also, does it skeev you out too to hear the phrase “a brand…at the core of a particular character’s identity”? I’m all for realism in teen books, and I understand that some young – or old – people identify strongly with a particular brand, but seriously now, a brand should not be at the core of every character. That is not realism; that is advertising.)

As a a librarian, parent and book reviewer, I have many concerns about product placement in books for youth. Will authors eventually be expected to write in specified products to their stories, in order to get a publishing contract with a major press? How will we know about these sponsorship deals? Presumably all publishers won’t be (haven’t been?) as forthcoming about their “sponsorship” agreements as Running Press.

    And what can we do to send a strong message back to publishers that we do NOT approve of such meddling in our YA literature?

    When I teach college courses in Women’s/Gender Studies, I always sneak in media literacy stuff. Learning how to read and question health reporting, the sad state of our media “democracy” these days, what is “net neutrality,” etc. Invariably, many students are shocked and appalled after reading an article about product placement in TV shows. What does this say to me? Educated, bright, young Canadians – even those who choose to take elective courses that focus on critical thinking – have no idea about all the marketing that surrounds us.

    Like many librarians I am a bit of a bibliophile.  Books are sacred things, and somehow the idea of novels becoming as corrupt and marketing to our youth as much as television upsets me. Can we do something about this? Exclude books from the running for awards if they have paid product placement or some such, perhaps?

    And what of book buying for libraries? When the “select for literary quality” philosophy bumps up against the “give them what they want” ideology for collection development, does product placement in books ever cause them to be removed from a list? Should school libraries, who do have some responsibility to act “in loco parentis” eschew sponsored books? Is this different from commercial popular books like those modeled on TV shows, toys, etc.? (It feels different, somehow, because it’s more sneaky.)

    Other than the makeup fiasco, Cathy’s Book sounds like an interesting concept…but should I not read it on a moral stance? Fortunately, I checked my local library catalogue and it appears that they have bought the revised, paperback edition. But what if the publisher was brash enough to refuse to offer a non-commercial edition?

    Off to tear my hair out now…right after I put a hold request on Cathy’s Book.

    -Greyson

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    2 Comments

    Filed under media democracy, privatization, publishing, school libraries

    2 responses to “Brand Sponsorship of YA Novels?

    1. berard

      And what would you think of a novel (by a first time author) that would cite sponsored brands, but as a way to finance its distribution for free (creative commons for example) ?

    2. greyson

      That’s a good question! I hadn’t actually considered product-placement/advertising as a method of subsidizing open access/public domain/other alternatively licensed YA fiction literature. Hmmm…

      My immediate instinct is to say a lot of my opinion depends on how up-front and transparent the author/publisher is about the advertising. But there’s a lot more to consider than just that, isn’t there. Particularly when one thinks about the corporate ties some large publishing houses have, and then try to draw distinctions between that and individual book corporate sponsorship.

      Why do you specify “a first time author”? Do you think this makes a difference?

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