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.


  1. Chris, I am honestly appalled that this is even being considered. Publishers will seek to install ads on top of already gouging consumers for e-books. The entire notion of destroying the shelter that books provides seems seedy at best and down right selfish at its worst. Consumers have already lost entirely too much with DRM, feature disablement, and Agency pricing; its time to draw the line somewhere! It troubles me even further, due to its implications revolving around freedom of speech issues. Who decides what makes out of the slush pile? It’s bad enough with publishers making the call, we don’t need new gatekeepers.

  2. I imagine all of these ideas will start occurring to publishers and advertisers over the coming months and years. It’s part of business.
    What ultimately happens will be determined by what readers will accept and I most certainly do not thing that they will accept adverts within ebooks.
    I can see product placement coming – but I can see it attracting a lot of attention and then bad attention. Imho I see it being a fad that will blow over because the bad attention will outweigh the positive exposure of the advertisers.
    Film makers have made it work because films are so incredibly expensive to produce and customers treat it as part of life. eBooks are not hugely expensive to produce (to say the least) and I think readers will baulk at the placements.

  3. Just like DRM, the end result of this may actually be piracy – pirates are more than willing to proof/edit scans for errors, so it doesn’t take much more work to clean up some product placement and ads depending on how it’s implemented. The more you cripple a product, the more likely it is that people are unwilling to pay for it.

  4. Product placements are much less distracting in film and television than they would be in a book. When you’re watching a movie, it’s not very distracting that the character happens to be using a particular brand of laptop. It’s there, you see it, you might even register it, but it’s just part of the scenery. In a book, though, when you mention the brand of the laptop, now it becomes a part of the definition of the character, because it was an important enough piece of detail to be mentioned.

    I don’t think readers will be willing to put up with it.

The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail