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 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.