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Here Comes the 'Propaganda Novel'

Product placement taken to a new literary level.

By Shannon Rupp 1 Mar 2006 |

Shannon Rupp was a Tyee contributing editor. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at) 

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Since writers enjoy moaning about the lack of respect they get, not to mention the lack of cash, I'm not sure they'll appreciate the first hint of a literary trend with the potential to earn serious money: the propaganda novel.

But anyone in corporate marketing is bound to feel that frisson that comes with the first glimpse of an inventive new way to manipulate the masses.

I'm calling it the propaganda novel, for the lack of a catchier term (which will no doubt surface). Of course, it's true that all novels (and I would argue all art) are propaganda in the original sense of the word, in that they direct audiences to see the world through the artist's eyes. Charles Dickens seduced us into that annual shopping festival, Christmas. William Gibson spelled out just why corporations are so darn scary. And the Brontes have a lot to answer for in convincing young women that angry, abusive bad-boys are sexier than nice guys.

But I'm talking about a new kind of novel that will serve as propaganda in the more commonly understood definition of the word: an organized program of publicity and (often mis- or dis-) information.

Global warming 'conspiracy'

You can see the roots of this trend in this year's winner of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists" Journalism Award. It went to doctor-turned-pulp-writer Michael Crichton (of Jurassic Park an ER fame) for his novel State of Fear. The thriller dismisses global warming as nothing more than a conspiracy among scientists with a self-serving agenda, so you can see why it might prove a favourite page-turner in the oil industry.

In explaining to the New York Times why the association was giving a "journalism" award for a work of fiction, Communications Director Larry Nation said "But it has the absolute ring of truth."

Leaving aside the possibility that Nation studied journalism with Jayson Blair or Stephen Glass, he's obviously hit on the next great mind control technique - the booster book.

Think of it as product placement with a more ambitious goal.

PR, advertising, marketing, promotions, corporate communication, whatever you call it, is at a crossroads.

Everyone knows they're lying. And everyone agrees that the conventional ad is dead. VCRs killed TV's 30-spot the day they allowed viewers to time shift and FF past commercials. Talk about an F-ing problem.

Initial solutions, like making more entertaining commercials, failed. Gap ads featuring dancers doing the Lindy hop to catchy tunes prompted most of us to watch - but it didn't make people buy T-shirts or whatever else they were selling.

Magical products

All of which leads us to the current explosion of advertising invading the story. Last month, Nielsen Media research reported that "product integration" - when a consumer gizmo has an active role in the plot -- has jumped 30 percent since they began tracking such things three years ago.

Product placement isn't new. Ever since ET found out that humans weren't all that bad via a trail of Reese's Pieces in 1982, filmmakers have padded their budgets by incorporating products into sets on a pay-per-view basis.

But until recently, product placement has been handled as simply as having American Idol judges drinking whatever it is they need to out of Coke cups to get themselves through those god-awful shows. (Do any of us, for one moment, think it is Coca-Cola? As if they're not suffering enough.)

The new trend is to weave advertising into the story by having products drive the plot. And no show is more successful at this than 24. In January's fifth season debut, patriot-and-psychopath Jack Bauer snapped photos of the terrorists he was spying on using his Sprint Treo 650.

Thanks to the magnificent clarity of the phone photos, the terrorists were identified and the crisis averted. This magical phone was even "reconfigured" by the CTU computer geeks to trigger the bomb strapped to a terrorist. (Go military industrial complex!)

I'd bet money that frequent fliers across the U.S. are planning to switch to this phone.

Toyota even paid to have some scenes in earlier seasons re-shot for the DVD so that the good guys could drive their cars. (I've been meaning to go back and see what the bad guys are driving. Do they make Ladas anymore? In any case, isn't a Chechen terrorist who drives a Lada more pathetic than scary? And what if it's an American car, could that dealer sue? You know those lawsuit-happy Americans.)

Brave new tactics

Gary Newman, president of 20th Century Fox, which produces 24, told the LA Times that the show's brave new approach developed because the old advertising formulas aren't working anymore.

"We're living in a crazy new world," Newman said. "We have to be smart and find new ways to monetize the value of our programs."

Well, he's got the first part right.

And writers can curse the insanity of advertising replacing plot or unemployed creative writing grads can embrace it as the fine opportunity it is. To make products more than just props takes real planning of the kind novelists are most likely to do. That's one of the reasons books, which are carefully crafted by one person, are so often made into films, although everyone agrees the film (made by a committee of suits) is never as good as the book.

So I'm about to contact the Association of Petroleum Geologists, and hosts of other industries with dubious reputations, and sell them on my plan to redirect PR and advertising funds into author-sponsorship programs. Corporations and associations have always bought good will with arts grants, and this will be no different - except that they'll get more bang for their tax-deductible buck.

According to Hollywood, moguls prices for product plugs range all over the map. The cut-rate "subliminal" advertising that doesn't emphasize the product's name goes for about $100,000 a prop. The rule of thumb is that prices are hooked to the amount of control the advertiser gets.

Cheap fictions

Books are much cheaper to produce than film or television and sponsorship costs would be much more affordable for those easy-to-bully fiction writers. That $100,000 for a cheap-y placement would keep an author quite comfortably for a year spent writing the persuasive commercial novel. Once the draft of the novel is up, the author could pad her budget by selling all the product placement possibilities - the 3Ps.

Our geologist heroes are going to need good computers, phones, hi-tech wilderness gear, Hummers, etc. There will be a bonus cost for advertisers who want to ensure their product is featured in any subsequent media - say a movie.

So to get the local PR weasels thinking, I'm developing a few story ideas that lend themselves well to romances, mysteries, or other types of genre fiction.

For the forest industry client: a romance novel in which a beautiful, committed environmentalist falls in love with a logger. They clash at first, but soon she learns that people working in the forest industry are the true environmentalists as they live on and care for the land. The so-called environmentalists, she discovers, are just a bunch of urban poseurs with ignorant ideas and rigid Puritanical attitudes. Her outdoorsman's passionate nature teaches her to appreciate why it's best to fall the big trees. I envision a love scene set against the seductive light of a burning clearcut.

For the environmentalist client: a romance novel in which a beautiful, committed forester falls in love with an environmentalist. At first they clash, but she soon learns that her forestry degree is a collection of half-truths and the suits who run the business are little more than greedy criminals bent on exploiting everyone and everything for personal gain. Meanwhile her environmentalist teaches her about the erotic possibilities of flannel and carabiners…

I'm also making notes for a mystery in which an intrepid journalist finally snaps and murders the publisher of his paper because he's been sent to write one fawning story too many on yet another advertiser. It will probably have limited PR appeal, unless I sell it as a how-to for the perfect crime… Say, maybe the journalists' unions would sponsor it?

© Shannon Rupp. For permission to reprint this article please contact the author: shannon(at)

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