Writers, James Bond, and the Perils of Product Placement

It’s one of the most recognizable quotes in the history of cinema: “Shaken, but not stirred.” The phrase perfectly encapsulated the nature of James Bond, and has since become synonymous with the suave British spy.

Its first appearance was in Ian Fleming’s fourth Bond novel, Diamonds Are Forever, although Bond himself didn’t utter the words until the sixth outing, Dr. No – half-way through the much-loved series.

The movie franchise did a lot more to immortalize the phrase, and it appeared from the very first installment, Dr. No, and in virtually every Bond movie since (with some notable exceptions).

It’s symbolic of James Bond’s quintessential characteristics – sophistication – which explains why fans have reacted so angrily to reports that he will be trading his martini for a Heineken in the upcoming Skyfall. This isn’t the first time that Bond’s traditions have been tampered with; his usual Aston Martin was swapped for a BMW in Goldeneye (presumably for a large check), which caused a similar backlash.

Critics argue that throughout the twelve Fleming novels, numerous novelizations by other authors, and twenty-two movies (to date) that have featured the spy, there are only a few remaining signifiers that make Bond who he is: his code number (007), his looks and taste for amorous adventures, and his sophistication and sense of style – of which the martini, with its explicit instructions for preparation, is a key part.

I’m sure the anger is compounded by the replacement beverage being something as unsophisticated as beer, and something as universal and generic as Heineken. And I’m also confident that nobody is surprised to hear the release of the movie will be accompanied by a worldwide advertising campaign from Heineken, featuring Bond swilling their lager.

Aside from the much-derided (temporary) switch to BMW, this is hardly the first instance of product or brand placement in Bond movies. Since the very first installment in 1962, Bond movies have featured British Airways, PanAm, Perrier, Finlandia Vodka, Smirnoff, Ford, Omega, Mattel, Calvin Klein, Virgin Atlantic, Revlon, Samsonite, Sony Ericcson, Kodak, and many more.

I’m sure Ian Fleming’s literary estate would defend the practice as monetizing something that was native to Fleming’s writing anyway (he often mentioned brands like Cartier and received no compensation). However, fans would be justified in arguing that mentions of products have become increasingly shameless (with a scene in Casino Royale namedropping Omega attracting particular scorn).

Product placement in movies and television has become so ubiquitous that it has led to widespread parody, faux product placement (the invention of fictional products/brands such as Kwik-E-Mart in The Simpsons), reverse placement (the rebranding of real-life 7/11 stores as Kwik-E-Marts in 2007), and product displacement (where Mercedez-Benz asked the makers of Slumdog Millionaire to remove their iconic logo from scenes featuring their cars in slum settings).

Such product placement isn’t as common in books, but it has a long history. When Jules Verne began serializing Around the Wold in Eighty Days in 1872, transport and shipping companies lobbied to be mentioned (it should be noted that Verne claimed the novel was inspired by a Thomas Cook advertisement in a Parisian newspaper).

However, without a doubt the most shameless literary product placement was in a pulpy detective novel from 1962 called Never Kill A Client by Brett Halliday. The book was part of a long-running (and hugely popular) series featuring private detective Mike Shayne.

In one early scene in Never Kill A Client, Shayne is on the scent of a case and boards a flight to Los Angeles, taking a seat next to a passenger reading another of Brett Halliday’s books. The narrator goes on to say:

“It wasn’t a rare occurrence for Shayne to see some complete stranger reading one of Halliday’s books. With thirty million copies of them sold in soft cover editions, it would have been queerer if you didn’t run into them now and then. And Shayne also knew that She Woke to Darkness had recently been reissued in a new cover and there were probably several hundred thousand copies of it in the hands of readers throughout the country.”

The conversation between Shayne and the passenger about Halliday’s oeuvre continues for another two pages. Such an aside is probably made easier by the fact that Brett Halliday was a pen-name.

The writer, Davis Dresser, was an interesting character who wore an eye-patch since a childhood accident with barbed wire. Aside from a voluminous writing output, he was also a founding member of the Mystery Writers of America, of which his wife, fellow author Helen McCloy, later became the first female president.

There is no doubt that Dresser’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek in the above, as fun is poked at several of his novels. However, it quite clearly shows the possibilities for advertisers to shoehorn their way into fictional narratives.

The advent of e-books makes such marketing tie-ins a lot more attractive to brands. As any author who has been interviewed for a newspaper will know, a clickable link can make all the difference between a bump in sales and no effect whatsoever.

Publishers (and self-publishers) have been circling the idea of advertising in e-books for some time. Straight advertising can be intrusive and can also provoke a negative reaction (even if advertising in books is nothing new and has long been common in things like travel guides). Product placement is (usually) more subtle, and allows marketers to tap into the emotional connection that people have with the writer’s characters.

The attraction of the idea is obvious. It’s an additional revenue stream, and potentially a very lucrative one. While product placement in novels is unlikely to attract the kind of prices we are seeing in movies (Skyfall is aiming to bring in over $40m in product placement fees), there is no doubt that the biggest selling books could command considerable prices.

For self-publishers, the attraction lies in monetizing free or cheap content. After all, a book could be permanently free if it was subsidized sufficiently by advertising or product placement fees.

However, as the James Bond outcry shows, there are clear dangers here. It seems there is a small step between getting paid for something you are doing anyway (mentioning how much a character loves their Converse), and radically altering the characteristics of your hero, or your plot, to suit a corporate agenda.


David Gaughran is the author of the South American historical adventure A Storm Hits Valparaiso and the short stories If You Go Into The Woods and Transfection as well as the popular self-publishing guide Let’s Get Digital: How To Self-Publish, And Why You Should. Born in Ireland, he now lives in Sweden, but spends most of his time travelling the world, collecting stories.

4 replies
  1. Jande
    Jande says:

    I once read a speculative fiction novel by a well publicized author of several books, whose writing was riddled with brand names of everything from beverages to shops. The story would have engaged me much more if I hadn’t the distasteful notion that he advertising for these products and possibly being paid to do so. I never again purchased a book by this author. I stopped watching TV due to advertisement overhwhelm. I do hope I won’t have to give up buying novels and therefore reading, as well.

  2. Lexi Revellian
    Lexi Revellian says:

    Darn! It never occurred to me that one of my characters in ‘Replica’ could have been enthusiastically reading ‘Remix’… Missed a trick there.

    I use brand names frequently, as it gives a clearer idea for the same number of words – “I sold my Rolex” rather than “I sold my watch”. To my amusement, one reviewer commented on this:

    “I did begin to wonder if the author was getting sponsorship from companies for dropping their names into the book, the way that TV companies do for using products. There are constant references to Google – I even discovered a new way to Google things through reading this book. And references to how sleek and comfortable a BMW is, great value clothes from Peacocks and so on.”

    • David Gaughran
      David Gaughran says:

      There’s certainly nothing wrong with using brand names per se; “Rolex” is certainly more evocative than “watch” and less cumbersome than “exclusive Swiss timepiece.” I think dropping brand names in this way has been quite widespread since King.

      It’s not usually an option for historical novelists, but my current WIP stretches into the 1920s, and I think I drop a couple here and there.

      P.S. That review is hilarious.

  3. D. L. Mackenzie
    D. L. Mackenzie says:

    David, I kept expecting you to mention “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1743720/), a 2011 documentary by Morgan “Super-Size Me” Spurlock. In brief, Spurlock concocts a fictitious proposal to create a film funded entirely by product placement royalties. He runs the Hollywood gauntlet to get the project green-lighted for production, filming the sausage-making process as part of an also-fictional “making of” featurette. It’s hilarious, and disturbing.

    That said, I think there is a huge distinction between product placement in a book and and the same in a film. A writer has to purposely mention a brand name, whereas a scene in a film can inadvertently display dozens of brand names just by them falling within the frame. In a book, the writer may choose to specify a brand for whatever reason, or their character can simply drink “a beer” from a bottle. However, in a film the character would be reduced to drinking from a bottle of (for instance) Heineken with the label soaked off, or with the word “BEER” plastered over the original label, or some other measure to actively remove the unintentional product placement. If a film character happens to be drinking a Heineken, I’d rather they leave the bottle alone, and if Heineken is wiling to kick in some money, I’m fine with that, too.

    Bond drinking a Heineken is another matter, though. I suggest we take up a collection and offer the production cash to have Bond order his beer “shaken, not stirred.”


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