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Are books for kids where little ideas - or big brands - grow?


John Mangan

The Age (Australia)
March 16, 2008


PRODUCT placement where companies pay to get their merchandise up in lights is about to make an audacious leap from the screen to the printed page, and cashed-up kids will be the primary target.

Critics, and there are plenty, are calling it cynical, manipulative and just plain tacky, as HarperCollins in the United States has announced it will publish a series of books aimed at eight to 12-year-old girls full of references to brands who agree to sponsor them.

The Mackenzie Blue books will be written by Tina Wells, chief executive of a marketing company that advises product companies on how to sell to teenagers and pre-teenagers.

It's as if J. R. R. Tolkien had boosted his author's fee by writing that Frodo Baggins tucked into a McDonald's Happy Meal or KFC before setting out to tackle the Orcs.

"I think it's dreadful," says Pam McIntyre, who teaches literacy at the University of Melbourne.

"It's such cynical marketing that's got nothing to do with reading or promoting reading. It's just identifying young people as a vulnerable group."

Christine Andell, a director of children's bookshop The Little Bookroom, says the idea sounds awful. "It's distasteful and repugnant. What author would allow that kind of interference? It's not a way I'd like to see children being influenced in their leisure pursuits."

While HarperCollins has not yet decided whether to distribute the American Mackenzie Blue series in Australia, its Australian children's publisher, Lisa Berryman, says product placement is not on the agenda for the company's Australian authors.

"It hasn't ever come up in discussion here," she says. "We haven't been offered any projects, books or series."

In fact, Berryman says, HarperCollins follows a general industry practice in this country to avoid brand names when possible in children's books. "We prefer to use generic names for drinks, ice-creams, jeans or whatever," she says.

"Sometimes the author will have it there, and we'll say, 'Is there a reason it's a can of Coca-Cola; could it just be a can of soft drink?' "

Marketing, though, seems to be getting a foothold in American children's books. Two years ago Cathy's Book, a mystery for young adults by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman, contained references to CoverGirl make-up in exchange for advertising space on a website run by Procter & Gamble, CoverGirl's parent company.

Ralph Nader's advocacy group, Commercial Alert, urged readers to boycott the book, novelist Jane Smiley wrote a disapproving op-ed article in the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times ran a critical editorial.

That hasn't deterred American HarperCollins, and Tina Wells, who argue it's time for books to use marketing like other media for children, such as films and websites.

Wells told The New York Times that while she planned to offer companies the opportunity to sponsor her Mackenzie Blue books and get mentioned in them, she would not change a brand that was central to a character merely to cement a marketing deal.

"Mackenzie loves (shoe manufacturer) Converse," she said. "Does Converse want to work with us? I have no clue. But that doesn't negate the fact that Mackenzie loves Converse."

However, if another shoe company such as Nike wanted to sponsor a book, Wells is still happy to do a deal. "Maybe another character could become a Nike girl."

Curiously, while Australian children are protected from product placement in books by a voluntary code, strict regulations ensure it's barred from scheduled children's television here and overseas.

Chief executive of the Australian Children's Television Foundation, Jenny Buckland, says it wouldn't make sense for people making children's programs to include product placement, as a series would then be banned in so many countries.

She also thinks big companies are getting more wary of a consumer backlash against more extreme marketing aimed at children.

While regulating children's books would be unwieldy and smack of censorship, McIntyre says the best solution is to educate children to understand how advertising targets them, and then to trust their intelligence.

"We have outstanding publishers for children in Australia producing books of wonderful quality, and people with great integrity involved in the process, so there's a self-regulation," McIntyre says.

"We also have experts in the bookshops and children's and school librarians, so you could argue there are plenty of gatekeepers to protect children," she says.

"Ultimately though, I think we underestimate children. From an early age, they're looking critically at what they read, and schools are doing a lot to make sure they don't become victims."
Best-sellers or a big sell-out?

■ Lipslicks: Line of lip gloss made by CoverGirl, which did a deal to be name-checked in young adult novel Cathy's Book, by Sean Stewart and Jordan Weisman.

■ Converse The brand of sneakers favoured by Mackenzie Blue, heroine of a US book series set to include product placement.

■ Nike Mackenzie Blue author Tina Wells says she'd be happy to include a "Nike girl" character if Nike wanted to sponsor the books.


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