“Fancy” Wal-Mart: Product Placement in Books for Young Readers

The media and writer listservs/bulletin boards are abuzz with talk of product placement in novels for young readers. Much of the conversations focus on promotional tie-in opportunities versus the ethics of “stealth advertising” to kids. I’ve been mulling over another aspect, and I’m of two opinions on it.

First, I have a roof over my head, an author spouse with a day job, and no children to put through college, so it is not my place to judge a writer who decides to take money for working a brand name into his or her manuscript.

That said, I personally put a lot of thought into which products are mentioned in my books because, in a consumer-driven society, those choices sometimes matter.

Here’s an example from my real life:

I’m at a holiday dinner in a small, lower middle class town, and because I’m law-school educated and live in central Austin (eclectic with many indie businesses), one of the guests teases that I probably never shop at Wal-Mart.

Not wanting to come across as a snob, I defend myself with, “I go to Target!”

“Oh!” she replies. “You mean fancy Wal-Mart.”

A different crowd goes to Wal-Mart than Target. A different character wears Cover Girl than Elizabeth Arden. Setting a scene in Austin at Fonda San Miguel has a different connotation than one at Taco Cabana or even Guero’s Taco Bar.

These are storytelling details, and whatever decision we as writers make in response to a corporate offer, we need to realize that there’s sometimes a literary impact from the brand names we elect to mention.

I’m not saying this is always true. For example, like Steven Spielberg, I’m hard pressed to distinguish the connotation between M&Ms and Reese’s Pieces.

But in any case, it also may be noted that brand references can be overdone. So thanks for listening to Children’s and YA Author Cynthia Leitich Smith, published by Candlewick, Dutton, and HarperCollins, writing from her Toshiba laptop in a Nike sleeveless T and Cuddlebuns long underwear from JCPenney and petting a purring white cat from the Town Lake Animal Shelter. And once you’re done reading this, how about checking out my upcoming books, Santa Knows (Dutton, 2006) and Tantalize (Candlewick 2007)?