Critics riled that teen book plugs makeup

October 01, 2006|By JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ | JOANN KLIMKIEWICZ,The Hartford Courant

The book's main character sips Coca-Cola, shops at Borders and paints her face in shades of "metallic rose" and "midnight metal" CoverGirl makeup. Not unusual for a young adult novel attempting to anchor its story line in the language and material realities of its targeted teen audience.

But in the forthcoming Cathy's Book: If Found Call (650) 266-8233, it's that last product mention that has child-advocacy groups raising a wary brow.

Running Press, the book's publisher, has partnered with Procter & Gamble, CoverGirl's owner, to incorporate the cosmetics line in the plot. No money changed hands in the deal. But in return for having its makeup referenced in the book's text and illustrations, P&G will promote the book, due out next month, on CoverGirl.com and BeingGirl.com, a Web site for teenage girls. (CoverGirl products are made in Hunt Valley.)

Monetary payment or not, the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood calls it product placement, that commonplace marketing tactic in television and film. And now it's entering a new frontier of young adult literature.

"It's harder and harder to find commercial-free space in kids' lives. Books used to be a refuge from that kind of blatant commercialism. Now kids aren't even protected when they read," says Susan Linn, co-founder of the Boston-based advocacy group.

Particularly troubling in this method, as opposed to Disney books' clearly promoting the company's animated films, she says, is that the audience might not recognize they're being advertised to. "It's not obvious, which makes it more powerful," says Linn.

The group has launched a campaign urging Running Press, an imprint of Perseus Books, to remove

the placement from the novel. The Association of Booksellers for Children is supporting the campaign, and Commercial Alert, a watchdog group in Oregon, has written to 350 book critics asking them to boycott review of the book.

It's amounted to a lot of buzz for a book that has yet to hit store shelves.

"It is interesting to hear so many opinions from so many people who never requested an advance copy," David Steinberger, president of Perseus, wrote in Publishers Weekly.

"It is ironic that Cathy's Book critics see a cause celebre, when literature is filled with product mentions to enhance verisimilitude," he wrote.

Rick Joyce, a spokesman for Perseus, says there was nothing covert about the partnership. The publisher discloses it in the copyright page and announced it to the press in June. At that time, the authors explained to The New York Times that they weren't commissioned by P&G. They had already written the story using Clinique products when the partnership was suggested.

"Teens are highly marketed to in all sorts of ways. They're very savvy about it," he says. And they're smart enough to know if it works or doesn't. "This is just a great book that intentionally blurs the lines between the narrative and the real world in ways that are obvious."

Written by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, the book is being praised as an inventive, interactive take on the stale young-adult genre. Written in journal form, the book centers on a 17-year-old named Cathy who follows a string of clues to investigate why her older boyfriend has hastily broken up with her and disappeared. Readers trail along, using a packet of "evidence" taped to the front cover, calling up working phone numbers and Web sites that are scattered throughout the narrative.

"I've read the book. And I liked it ... and the idea of readers' being able to extend their experience" via the mixed-media elements, says Kristen McLean, executive director of the booksellers association. "But I think you can have plenty of interactivity without" the commercial tie-in.

The issue is not the product mention but the cross-promotional agreement behind it that muddies the literary waters. "Reading is a solitary, intimate experience. By placing a product message right in a book, you're getting right into a teen's head, which I think is morally ambiguous."

The campaign worries this is a slippery slope for future product placement. Will a book's capacity to push a product be a prerequisite for publication?

"If this is a slippery slope, and we don't see it that way," says Joyce, "then it's a slope that every other medium has already slid down."

Joann Klimkiewicz writes for The Hartford Courant.

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