Young Adult Novels Plumb New Depths Of Product Placement

Illustration for article titled Young Adult Novels Plumb New Depths Of Product Placement

About a year ago, I was desperate to review Dial L For Loser from the New York Times best-selling tween book series The Clique. I thought the title was hilarious and I wanted to see what sort of written culture the kiddies are consuming these days. Within the first ten pages, there were mentions of Ella Moss, Neiman Marcus, Prada, Range Rovers, and Chantico drinking chocolate (even hot beverages must be branded!). In fact, it broke down to 1.8 brand mentions per page, which is staggering when you consider that each page had about 160 words. The characters consuming these lux brands were supposed to be seventh graders. Well listen up kiddies, the brand-infiltration of books aimed at ten-to-twelve year olds is only going to get exponentially worse. A new series of books by HarperCollins and named for a heroine called Mackenzie Blue is offering brand sponsorship for each new novel before the books are even written.

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The author of the books, Tina Wells, is not even a writer by trade; she is, according to the NY Times, "chief executive of Buzz Marketing Group, which advises consumer product companies on how to sell to teenagers and preteenagers." But this is nothing new: Clique series author Lisi Harrison used to be a Senior Director of Development at MTV and is the brains behind such classics as "Room Raiders." (Also, the middle schoolers in the Clique series are apparently grossed out by menstruation, but that's a whole other post. We miss you, Margaret, and your menses loving ways!).

Ms. Wells claims that brand sponsorship will not interfere with Mackenzie Blue's content. "Mackenzie loves Converse...Does Converse want to work with us? I have no clue. But that doesn't negate the fact that Mackenzie loves Converse," Wells told the Times. When reporter Motoko Rich asked her if she would refuse a lucrative contract from Nike even though Mackenzie is a "Converse girl," Wells said, "Maybe another character could become a Nike girl." Don't you see, brands won't be dictating her content at all!

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Even worse is Mackenzie Blue publisher Susan Katz. "If you look at Web sites, general media or television, corporate sponsorship or some sort of advertising is totally embedded in the world that tweens live in," Ms. Katz said. "It gives us another opportunity for authenticity." [Cue gagging sounds here. -Ed.] The thing is, tweens may be beginning to resent the bill of goods YA novels are selling. In an Amazon.com customer review* of <a href="http://www.amazon.com/Elizabeth-Love-Sweet-Valley-University/dp/0553493477/r

ef=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1203450984&sr=1-1">Elizabeth In Love, part of the Sweet Valley High series but published in the aughts, reader "gt7941a" complains, "Note to author: bring back realism, excitement, romance w/o jumping into bed and LOSE the talk about what brand of makeup & clothing everyone is wearing. It used to be Pascal/John used phony names even for the mall stores & the only recognizable brand were Bruce's Porsche."

The only way to halt this seemingly unstoppable tide of brand worshiping is for kids to quit buying these books, but that doesn't look like it's going to happen anytime soon. Some might argue it's good the kids are reading at all, since Americans are already reading fewer books than they did 10 years ago. Meanwhile, I'm tempted to only buy books published before 1980 for my (future) children. Or you know, cash in on this YA novel branding trend while it's still hot! Hey Reebok, I have a heroine I think you'd just adore!

*This review was spotted by Lizzie Skurnick, our own Fine Lines columnist and YA enthusiast par excellence.

In Books For Young, Two Views on Product Placement [New York Times]
More Debate Over The Decline Of Reading [Utne Reader]

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DISCUSSION

jennasauers
Jenna Sauers

@Jabbotage: I'm sorry, but I don't buy either claim. Literature does matter, and what we read does have an impact on us. You can read for "fun", but what we choose to read for fun is still an important choice, since we naturally absorb values and inform our later judgment based partly on the things we read.

And the Clique does make a huge departure from earlier traditions of literature for young women and girls. Naomi Wolf argued as much very succinctly in a 2006 review of the series in the New York Times Book Review. There is a a long-running paradigm in literature of the wealthy, popular, superficial anti-heroine who is humbled by the poorer, but more authentic outsider.

"Sara Crewe in Frances Hodgson Burnett's Little Princess loses her social standing and is tormented by the school's alpha girls, but by the end of the story we see them brought low. In Little Women, Jo March's criticism of 'ladylike' social norms is challenged by an invitation to a ball; while Meg, the eldest girl, is taken in by the wealthy daughters of the house and given a makeover - which is meant to reveal not her victory as a character but her weakness."

Mr. Rochester prefers plain, raised-poor, unrefined Jane Eyre to the pretentious Blanche Ingram. Elizabeth Bennet, whose family is clinging by its fingernails to their social status, stands up to the imperious Lady Catherine, and wins Mr. Darcy. These are among the instructive lessons of literature.

The instructive lesson of the Clique novels? Makeovers signal victory. Your parents are stupid. The GAP is not cool; only Prada and Burberry (did you notice our covers are plaid, like Burberry? Ehmagod!) are cool. Being middle-class is only okay if you can fake a higher standard of living on consumer credit. There is no virtue in being yourself.

These novels and series aren't a continuation of the work of Wharton and Austen; they're its diametric opposite, its inversion. And that's why they trouble me.