A Novel Approach to Advertising

Now that Bulgari has paid for glowing mentions in Fay Weldon's new book, what's next? How about the Toro lawnmower edition of Leaves of Grass?

By Thane Peterson

I sat up and took notice when I read that Fay Weldon's latest novel, The Bulgari Connection, had been commissioned by Bulgari, the jewelry company. According to a rash of recent reports, the company paid the author an undisclosed sum to write the novel, in which Bulgari stores and jewelry figure in a number of scenes, as a marketing stunt. Originally, the book was intended to be published privately just for the company, but it ended up being brought out as a conventional novel for commercial sale.

The novelist seems untroubled that she might be perceived as doing some unseemly shilling for a commercial concern. "Have I betrayed the sacred name of literature?" she was quoted in a New York Times editorial. "Well, what the heck."


  You can pooh-pooh this arrangement, but I see just another business opportunity here. Marketing maestros have slapped their messages on everything from shopping carts to Venus Williams' sleeve, but, until now,nobody had thought of literature. Product plugs appear all the time in movies. Why not in great books? I bet authors like John Updike, J.D. Salinger, and Maya Angelou have never even been approached by a jewelry maker. What about a reissue of Updike's Rabbit Run sponsored by Nike? And would anyone really mind if Holden Caulfield quaffed a Pepsi or two in the next edition of Catcher in the Rye?

You know the really great thing about this concept? If Updike and Salinger are too snooty to go for it, a lot of the really big names are still going to be available for promotions. Think about it -- Homer, Shakespeare, Moliere, Tolstoy, and the Brontë sisters. There can be no copyright worries or petty literary quibbling from long-dead writers like that. Talk about brand equity and name recognition!

How about tasteful product mentions segued into familiar plots, sprightly new translations, corporate-sponsored reissues. You know, instead of the Folger's Library Shakespeare, you could have a Starbuck's Shakespeare in a nifty green and white binding with a few pages of discount latte coupons in the back. Millions of college and high school students have to read this stuff anyway, and modernizing the plots a little and inserting a few familiar brands would make the musty old texts a lot more relevant.


  Of course, you'd have to enforce some standards. Perhaps appoint a blue-ribbon panel of academics to make sure things don't get out of hand. You wouldn't want King Lear to start taking Prozac to control his mood swings just because Eli Lilly is willing to pay a placement fee. The Bard's original plot wouldn't make sense anymore if he did. And you couldn't have Little Nell in Dickens' Old Curiosity Shop singing Madonna lyrics to herself or cleaning her ears with Q-tips. Wouldn't be historically accurate.

But what would be the harm in a few subtle textual enhancements as subliminal advertising? For instance, if you were doing a Detroit Folio of the great poets, you could easily start off the well-known but somewhat dated Percy Bysshe Shelley poem To a Skylark with the lines, "Hail to thee, blithe Dodge Spirit! Pontiac Firebird thou never wert!" And it wouldn't be hard at all to rejigger something like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales to work in the names of a few cars:

A Knight ther was, and that a worthy man That from the tyme that he first bigan To ryden out, loved his Jeep Cherokee

When you get into translations, the possibilities really open up. Who's going to know, right? I mean, how many American readers are going to care if you retranslate the title of the signature collection by the 17th-century Japanese haiku poet Basho, The Narrow Road to the Deep North? Let's say you changed it to something like The Narrow Road to Beautiful Duluth. A few scholars might quibble, but the sense is pretty similar, isn't it? And it could really mean a lot to the Duluth Chamber of Commerce. They might even ante up a few bucks from their marketing budget to underwrite the translation.


  Or take a guy like the French novelist Marcel Proust. He can get pretty obscure, and the marketing tie-ins aren't obvious at first. But there are certainly possibilities there. For instance, consider the famous episode in his 2,000-page novel A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time) involving the "petite madeleine," the little French cake that when infused in tea conjures up a whole world of memories from the author's childhood. Now, would it really be inaccurate to translate "petite madeleine" as Hostess Twinkie or Oreo? Of course not. It would just bring the whole passage home to American readers.

There are tons of other literary product tie-ins nobody's even thought of yet. How about a new edition of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass underwritten by the Toro lawnmower people or the Scott's lawn-care products company? Seems like a natural. Or a deluxe edition of the Autobiography of Ulysses S. Grant by the makers of Grant's Scotch Whiskey in the shape of a half-gallon bottle? After all, the 18th U.S. president was a bit of a lush. The possibilities are endless.

You wouldn't have to stop with books, either. How about reissuing classic films -- Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, say, as North by Northwest Airlines?

I'll stop here. I don't want to reveal too many details of my business plan. I'm looking for venture capital, hoping to do an IPO in a year or two. This could be big. Really big.

Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BW Online

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht