Read Any Good Ads Lately?
Searching for a Subtler Sell, Marketers Commission Novels, Embed Products

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Look, Roy, it's a job. You know, the thing people do for money that they wouldn't normally do otherwise. I know you need the dough."

I looked at the envelope stuffed with cash and considered it. After a few seconds, I said, "Five-day minimum, plus expenses."

If every man has his price, as this gumshoe admits, then his creator's was the use of a Lexus and an undisclosed sum of money -- more than a modest book advance but less than what he would get for an episode of "Grey's Anatomy," says Los Angeles writer Mark Haskell Smith. The serial novel he penned is a promotion for the Japanese luxury automaker, which, after some intense focus-grouping, decided that potboiler fiction would be a great advertising hook to reach a younger, hipper client base.

If the tale of "Black Sapphire Pearl" blurs the line between fiction and advertising, it also exemplifies a $2 billion enterprise that is increasingly encroaching on traditional advertising, according to PQ Media, a Stamford, Conn., media research firm. With TiVo skipping commercials and pop-up blockers neutralizing online ads, traditional advertising is under assault everywhere. "Seamless brand integration" means that books, cartoons, video games and even television shows are now the hottest vehicles for advertisers to get their products in front of a target audience.

So Smith, who also writes for television and film, shaped his novel "to be really cool and different and literary." He says, "It doesn't read like an ad." More like this:

The Lexus loaner turned out to be a GS Hybrid. To say it was an upgrade from the battered Crown Vic I'd driven with the LAPD would be an understatement. For one, you don't need a key. You keep the remote control thing in your pocket and to start the car you just push a button on the dash. Like on a computer. In fact the car's more like a super-powered laptop on wheels than anything else.

Call it a fictomercial, a literatisement, branded entertainment. Lexus doesn't really care. As long as it makes people lust after its new top-of-the-line car.

The story is being published in three installments in the Lexus quarterly magazine, which is sent to owners, the last part coming this spring. It's also available, with interactive features, on the company's Web site.

Subtlety is one of the keys to placing a product name in media aimed at sophisticated consumers, says Richard Nelson, head of the Manship School of Mass Communication at Louisiana State University. "If it's so heavily overloaded that it's basically a commercial, people aren't going to want to read it, and they won't buy it."

This has led to the increasing popularity of softer marketing ploys, such as event sponsorships (think: author readings hosted by a local dealership, or an art installation commissioned by a major automaker), "webisodes" and "advergaming."

Although more is spent on traditional advertising -- $210 billion a year worldwide -- global product placement rose 42 percent in 2005 and is expected to triple by 2010, PQ Media said.

Some companies have soft-pedaled products in "billboard novels." In the comic novel "Men in Aprons," which Electrolux commissioned and this year will sell on its Web site (and make available for downloads), the vacuum-cleaner brand won't even be mentioned, but the hero will be seen vacuuming. Several years ago, when BMW commissioned a series of film shorts, starring Clive Owen as a BMW-driving chauffeur and created by a bevy of A-list Hollywood directors, the cars went unnamed (though who doesn't know the BMW logo?).

Publishers have been less inclined to go quietly along with such product-pushing on the page. They became apoplectic five years ago when best-selling British novelist Fay Weldon admitted she was paid by Bulgari to name-drop the Italian luxury-goods retailer throughout her book. Not only did she do so, but she tripled the agreed-upon number of mentions and added it to the title: "The Bulgari Connection."

Advertising Age magazine called that the revival of "a time bomb ticking away in the heart of marketing" that was planted in 1989 when author Beth Ann Herman plugged a Maserati dealership in Beverly Hills throughout her novel "Power City" and was rewarded with a $15,000 book party. Even then, though, it wasn't new. In 1855, Charles Dickens wrote an advertisement for a hotel he stayed in. It was later turned into a book, and he may also have gotten a few free rides from the Pickwick carriage line for "The Pickwick Papers."

Comic book purists may have been appalled by DC Comics' launch last year of a six-part miniseries featuring a new hero who drives a Pontiac Solstice. But 30 years ago, Green Lantern was shilling Hostess fruit pies, Captain Marvel and the Incredible Hulk pushed Twinkies, and Wonder Woman rescued Hostess cupcakes.

The new generation of product placement -- like Burger King's new three-part DVD video game, Sneak King -- aims at engaging consumers in some activity. The tactics are designed to imprint a brand in a way that a 30-second TV spot, Internet pop-up ad or magazine page doesn't.

"If you have someone experience something rather than just being told something, it's much more impactful," says Patrick Courrielche, managing director of Inform Ventures, a marketing company that has held an emcee talent search for Scion, a "street expo" featuring AT&T products and an art exhibit for Lexus.

"You can talk to your children 'til they're blue in the face, but if they actually experience something, they can learn from it and take it a little more seriously," Courrielche says. "This is applying that to marketing."

With that in mind, Lexus is considering creating a podcast based on "Black Sapphire." (Smith's published books are "Moist" and "Delicious"; his latest, "Salty," will be released this summer and promoted on Lexus's Web site.)

For his part, Smith says there was little the company did to encroach on his artistic freedom in writing the serial novel, other than to question his assertion that you can't find a good taco outside of Los Angeles and to nix a sex scene.

"I wanted to have this little scene, because you can talk about how nice the seats are, how they recline, how they're really soft. And actually they have these seat coolers in the car, and they really work. I thought, fantastic, you can have hot output on the cool seats. But they thought: No . . . that was too much."

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