Never Kill A Client: James Bond and the Perils of Product Placement Writing

I’m back from the Czech Republic, but have a show to put on in the gallery tonight, then tomorrow morning I’m off down to York to give a workshop at the Festival of Writing and take part in what is being billed as a fiery debate on e-books and self-publishing.

All of that should be great fun, but I won’t get to return to blogging duties until next week. Given the new Bond film is being released next month, I thought it would be a good time to re-run this piece I wrote for IndieReader in April. See you next week!

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Never Kill A Client: James Bond & the Perils of Product Placement

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

The 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.

In 2001, Fay Weldon was commissioned by Bulgari to write a novel, in which she was contractually obliged to mention the brand at least twelve times. A 2006 novel by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman replaced generic reference to make-up to specific mentions of Cover Girl products, in exchange for free advertising on a site owned by the parent company, Proctor & Gamble.

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

Born in Ireland, he now lives in a little fishing village in Portugal, although this hasn’t increased the time spent outside. He writes novels under another name, has helped thousands of authors build a readership with his books, blogs, workshops, and courses, and has created marketing campaigns for some of the biggest self-publishers on the planet. Friend to all dogs.

29 Replies to “Never Kill A Client: James Bond and the Perils of Product Placement”

  1. Nooooooooooooooooooooo! Bond a Lager-Lout! What next, Bond scoffing a kebab? Bond in TOWIE guest appearance shocker? Should we be surprised to see that Bond’s new Burberry sponsorship requires him to wear a tartan three-piece for the duration of the next film?

  2. The worst example I can think of was Will Smith in I Robot, which you mention. Didn’t he look into the camera as he waxed about his trainers/sneakers. I almost vomited in my popcorn.

  3. In the books Bond, like his creator, was a chain smoker. Perhaps they should revive this habit – the tobacco industry has more money than opportunities to advertise these days. But then I am not a Bond fan – I wouldn’t care if they did a tie-in with a haemorrhoid cream.

    I often use brand names, as the specific is more interesting than the generic. And all for free…

    (That extract from Brett Halliday is unbelievable! It must have wrenched every reader right out of the story to ponder the weirdness of it.)

    1. I came across a copy of Never Kill A Client in Sweden, of all places. I don’t have it with me here in London, but I seem to remember the back cover copy claiming something like 15 million books in print (across the whole Mike Shayne series).

      1. I always had to smile when Bond ordered his drink.

        A proper martini is mixed and then stirred with a special spoon. All our hero is doing is ordering a watered-down drink, and being snooty about it!

        Let’s hope he does better with the beer.

  4. This is all fine and fun, people expect it in the movies and tv, why not books?
    My soon to be released paranormal heroine trilogy has a character with a ‘secret indulgence’ for books in my other genre – swords & sorcery. I also have a scene where the heroine is hiding from pursuit in a book store loaded with ideas to differentiate a small town independent local bookshop in the brave new ebook world.

  5. If we’re not careful, the technology available to epublishers could expose us to an all-singing,all-dancing explosion of light with the odd word bundled along as an appendix.

    The thought of my ereader becoming as cluttered with offers for free iPads as my phone leaves me horrified. I could turn into a killer.

  6. I love this idea. I used to write product testimonials for new products (ant bait, anyone?) and it’s actually not the worst experience ever, if you just want a challenge once in awhile & you don’t mind being paid. I remember a Nanowrimo challenge where we had to use some obscure French dish in a chapter in order to “win.”

    Why not take on such a patron if it doesn’t detract from the story? Can’t be any worse than a certain super hero movie where a caped crusader goes crashing into a massive downtown Metropolis billboard…ARE YOU LISTENING, COCA-COLA? Come sponsor ME!

  7. The earliest example of product placement I’ve heard of is in the 1765 children’s’ book, ‘The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes’, where Goody’s father dies after being seized “with a violent fever in a place where Dr. James Fever Powder was not to be had.”

    The ‘Dr. James Fever Powder’ was a patent medicine sold by the publisher, John Newbury.

    Wikipedia has a good article on Newbury, sometimes called the Father of Children’s’ Literature:

  8. “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…”

    In all fairness, the Aston Martin WAS included in the beginning of Goldeneye in a very memorable driving sequence. It’s fun to see how fans get all bent out of shape about this stuff, particularly the cars. James Bond originally drove a Bentley in the novels, not an Aston Martin, and the AM didn’t make it’s first appearance till the 3rd movie, “Goldfinger,” as a replacement for the Bentley. Also, the AM was non-existent in Roger Moore’s 7 movies (apparently his Bond preferred a Lotus Esprit) or Timothy Dalton’s 2. I know there’s a lot of sentimentality for the AM, but it wasn’t used nearly as often as our selective memories would like to recall.

  9. Actually, the oldest literary placement I’ve encountered is in Cato the Elder’s “De Agricultura”, where he recommends specific artisans for their equipment. (It wasn’t very effective, as his audience turned out to be scholars living centuries after his death, & long after the businessmen he plugged had stopped taking orders.)

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned Italo Calvino’s “If on a winter’s night a traveler…”, wherein one of the “novels-within-the-novel” is a spy thriller about to be written now that all of the product placements had been sold. The English translation was published in 1981, so the selling of James Bond must have been an open secret 30 years ago.

  10. If i recall, he DOES get his martini (in an establishing scene in the movie the clearly showed how different he’d become from when he’d drunk the beer), but it’s subtle. The drink comes from a shaker, and he never says ‘shaken, not stirred’. The stealthy nature of the appareance ofthe drink wasa nice touch, I thought.

    The question of product placement is an interesting one. In fiction I’ve read, saying someone is wearing an ‘expensive suit’ and someone is wearing an Armani is somehow different. The one is generic, but the other is loaded with implications. Being paid to do so, however… I’m a bit hesitant. Though I suppose my feelings will likely change once I’M the one being asked to place stuff in my writing for money… 😉

  11. It should also be noted that American radio and television programs up through the late 1950s were either fully sponsored or owned by advertisers or agencies representing advertisers. The close association between advertising and brand name awareness and narrative fiction in all media has a long history. Remember the admonition from Dr. Samuel Johnson, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.”

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