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A Novel Idea: Product Placement
Bridget Kinsella -- 6/5/00
When aspiring sitcom writer Bill Fitzhugh moved from Canada to Los Angeles years ago, he took some friendly advice to heart and tried not to waste energy making sense of the place. But apparently he figured something out, and with three comic novels under his belt from Morrow and three more under contract, Fitzhugh has now managed to find a way to make the excesses of Hollywood work in publishing.
Yes, Fitzhugh sold the film rights to his recently released Cross Dressing (Morrow) to Universal Studios for $1.25 million long before publication, but his real coup was finding a way to make product placement--the common film industry practice that made Reese's Pieces synonymous with ET--apply to a novel.
"My publicist said that publishing a third novel is really not news," explained Fitzhugh. So he came up with a hook to get some attention. Morrow senior publicist Marie Elena Martinez, said that Fitzhugh, who did more than 200 drive-by visits to bookstores during a two-week road trip to publicize his last book, The Organ Grinders, has an inventive marketing track record. She described his scheme to get something in return for placing a product in a satirical thriller about an advertising man as "Fitzhugh funny." While critics might question what effect such crass commercialism might have on publishing, Fitzhugh said the deal was never about money.
Indeed, product placement deals usually do not involve dollars, but rather bartered goods or services. Fitzhugh told PW he was paid in an "undisclosed sum of Scotch." The idea came to him as he was two-thirds into writing Cross Dressing. "My editor loved the idea and I pulled it off," he said.
Fitzhugh stumbled upon the right product for his book while reading over a list of such companies provided by an L.A. public relations firm that he found online. "I was looking for something that already existed in the book," he said. Then he found the Seagram Company. His character, adman Dan Steele, masquerading as his twin brother priest, has a few encounters with liquor, so why not make his choice a Seagram's brand? The fact that Seagram's owns Universal, which not only bought the rights to Cross Dressing but also for Fitzhugh's first novel, Pest Control, did not escape this novelist/screenwriter. "What's the difference between having some fun and naming the Scotch they are drinking, and just saying they are drinking Scotch?" he asked. "No one ever accused me of writing literature with a capital 'L.'"
In hindsight, the author said, the Seagram deal actually helped with character development. It almost seemed an oversight not to have Steele wax p tic in ad copy-style about 35-year-old Scotch. "He would act that way about stuff. It's part of what defines him," explained Fitzhugh. "And that, of course, is what advertising intends to do."
Fitzhugh's editor, Tom Dupree, told PW that initially he hesitated when his writer suggested the idea of product placement. "Then I said, 'Fantastic.' This is a satirical novel whose lead character is an adman. It seemed to just fit," said Dupree. "Product placement in a book like this is just another part of the mix."
All Fitzhugh was after was some media attention, and it worked. (He considers the Scotch a bonus.) Both Time and Entertainment Weekly ran blurbs on Fitzhugh's novel and the ironic, uncommon use of ad payola in his book. Even Brill's Content ran a story that quoted Farrar, Straus & Giroux editor-in-chief Jonathan Galassi calling Fitzhugh's stunt "lame" and "not a great idea."
Morrow's Dupree maintains that product placement is not likely to catch on in publishing and tarnish the sacred book. "This wouldn't work with most books," said Dupree, nor would he want it to. He told PW he thought the Brill's piece missed the point: that this was a satirical novel about advertising. It is doubtful product placement could work in books the way it d s in film. In a movie, the products appear for a few seconds, but in print, repeated mentions would annoy the reader. Generally, in film, placement deals help offset the costs while a picture is in production. For example, Fitzhugh pointed to FedEx's high profile in the movie Bowfinger. "But how many FedEx shipments do you need?" he said. On the other hand, he added, "Scotch sits real good on a shelf. It just keeps getting better."
And just for the record, Fitzhugh also mentions the Carmelite nuns in Cross Dressing, but didn't seek any indulgences in return.
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