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demolition-man Paul Carr at TechCrunch looks at the recently-raised spectre of advertising in books (which we mentioned here) and explains why he thinks it is unlikely. But what he does suspect we will have (for similar reasons) is product placement.

The problem with advertising in books up to this point, Carr notes, is that books take so long to publish that it simply isn’t possible to keep up with the fast-moving marketplace. (Not that this has stopped some publishers of print books; I remember finding cigarette ads in the middle of Nick Carter paperbacks, and ads for other Gold Eagle books in the middle of Mack Bolan novels. But these are things for which the market isn’t exactly that changeable.)

On the other hand, e-books could have ads added dynamically on each download, much like banner ads in web pages. But the problem Carr sees with this is that publishers simply aren’t set up for advertising—would-be ad sellers would have to read the books they would be selling ads against, and it’s simply not possible to predict the circulation of best-sellers for the purpose of setting ad rates.

Furthermore, ads would interrupt the immersion of book reading, which sort of defeats the whole purpose.

But product placement in e-books, as in movies, can be inserted relatively seamlessly. Carr brings up some examples of books that have already brought in advertising fees for placing products, and suggests that would-be product placers could be limited to a set number of “impressions”, after which the name of their product would be dynamically replaced in subsequent downloads with that of some other business that paid for the privilege.

Something kind of like this has already been done, though not with e-books. The movie Demolition Man famously had a scene set in a restaurant that served little hors d’oeuvres made by putting a few bits of stuff on top of a Dorito. This restaurant’s chain was “the only restaurant to survive the Franchise Wars” that eliminated all other restaurants. In the English version, this eatery was a Taco Bell. But for some releases outside of the United States, the restaurant sign was digitally edited and the dialogue was redubbed to make it a Pizza Hut (which is owned by the same company as Taco Bell, but that the company wanted to promote more in other parts of the globe).

As Carr points out, the products that characters use often define them. He brings up the example of James Bond with a Rolex, but really the more iconic example is Bond’s Walther PPK—an essential part of his character for the original novels and most of the first twenty films. I would not doubt that the gun’s appearance in those books and movies helped sell a lot of PPKs to handgun and Bond enthusiasts—but how would it have been if Bond could have used a Glock, a Browning, a Smith & Wesson, etc. depending on when you bought the book?

But on the other hand, I suppose it might be all right for incidental, interchangeable products—does it really matter what brand of cologne or lipstick a character uses if you’re not a cologne or lipstick enthusiast? Does it matter if Sylvester Stallone ate at a Taco Bell or a Pizza Hut if the joke would work equally well for either one?

And for that matter, as this 2003 Tinotopia blog entry notes, product placement actually can add significantly to a film if the sponsor is on board with it.

It’s brilliant, and all the more so because Taco Bell had the courage to laugh at itself. Remember, this is a dystopian future; the fact that all restaurants are Taco Bells is part of the horror. Taco Bell not only allowed their image to be used this potentially risky way, but, if my memory is correct, they engaged in some serious cross-promotion with the film, using a clip from the movie in their TV ads. It’s a product placement that actually adds something to the movie, too, rather than just standing there as a monument to the producer’s greed.

One thing’s for sure: if dynamically-changeable e-book product placement starts happening, a lot of people are going to be upset if only on principle. But as Mike Masnick has been saying on Techdirt, businesses really should be out there trying new business models rather than trying to cling stubbornly to old ones. Nobody said they could only try business models everybody likes.

 
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