The Concept of
I received an extremely disquieting phone call yesterday. A reporter from the Wall Street Journal contacted me to ask my opinion of product placement advertising within comic books. Quite frankly, I had not the slightest idea about what he was talking about. I am, of course, familiar with the annoying practice of movie producers to take kickbacks from manufacturers of given consumer goods for featuring their products (as opposed to someone else's) in their movie. As a broad generality, I don't find it all that bothersome to see an actor drinking Coke as opposed to Pepsi, or driving a BMW instead of a Lexus. After all, they have to drive/eat/drink something in the course of a film, so having those momentary brand images auctioned off to the highest bidder does not seem like that big of a deal.
In all honesty, however, I have to tell you that my first reaction to overt product placement in comics was one of genuine hostility. Being a professional businessman, I am normally quite sympathetic to the avaricious goals of the publishers. Printing mainstream comic books is, after all, not an exercise in altruism. Publishers are out to make buckets and buckets of money, when ever, and where ever, possible. The fact that they may be helping facilitate the creation of comics that may ultimately contain incredible art, and/or enormously uplifting stories is, in some regards, secondary to their original goal of turning a profit. That's why many publishers feel no remorse in canceling titles in mid-story arc, or firing a creator who demands too much. It's all about the money.
Before you start to think that I've abandoned my capitalist ideals, please do understand that I do adhere, in some measure, to the supply side economic theories which broadly state that high profits encourage additional investment by other parties wishing to enter any given field. During some particularly profitable eras of comics publishing, the windfall profits of the major publishers led to a great increase in the overall output. As a case in point, look at the comics being published between 1939 through 1944. The larger publishers, such as Timely, DC/All-American, and Fawcett were the ones making the really big profits in those days, but there were also a slew of smaller publishers trying to snatch crumbs from the table. While the goal of these wanna-be publishers was to make a buck, they, in the process of simply trying to survive, allowed for the publication of some particularly great comics. Basil Wolverton, for example, received far more exposure because there were a number of smaller publishers looking for material (Centaur, Novelty, Lev Gleason, etc.), than he would ever have received just working for Fawcett and Timely.
Returning to the concept of product placement in comics, my first reaction to the reporter's question was "Well heck, why not start inserting Pepsi ads in the next printing of the bible? That would certainly also get you a lot of exposure with a captive audience..." Once I calmed down a bit, however, and thought about it more rationally, I realized that there was a serious fundamental flaw in the whole idea of product placement in comics. As I see it, people read comics as a way to step away from the real world. Comics are a series of alternate realities in which we can dwell whenever we wish. Very much like religions, they consist of mutually shared systems of beliefs based upon the acceptance of activities and "facts" that are obviously impossible within our world. Superman, for example, has X-Ray vision. Or, he certainly did when I was a kid. None of us questioned that basic tenet of the Superman mythos. Our biggest questions always revolved around the comparisons of mythologies. Could Superman kick Thor's butt? Was Galactus capable of taking them both down? Idle speculation, perhaps, but the basic concept was that we shared structured fantasies with our friends to such an extent that the underlying principals became givens within our overall worldviews.
Fast forward to tomorrow, and suddenly every other page of our new comics has an ad from this world intruding upon our fantasy realm. Not just the full page ads that are easy to recognize and flip past, but actual unavoidable visual insertions into the story itself. At what point does this commercial intrusion destroy the illusion of an alternate reality? My interviewer told me that Marvel has already been experimenting with product placements, by forcing their artists to draw Nike logos into recent issues of Spider-Man. That sounds like a small event, but to my way of thinking it really is treading over an ethical line that should never be crossed. Consider for a moment the repugnance of forcing people who consider themselves "artists" to whore themselves out by drawing commercials into their comics that they, themselves, would never include. Envision Stan Lee, for example, approaching Jack Kirby in 1964 and telling him that he needs to recreate a scene in Fantastic Four #48 in order to facilitate the placement of a Coke ad. And redraw another panel for Keds sneakers. And yet another for Aurora model kits. My skin crawls at the thought. Making a buck is one thing, but completely bastardizing an entire art form, in exchange for chump change, is downright stupid.
My final point about the negative impact of product placements relates, once again, to film. In most films, the basic concept is that the characters are interacting in our world. They may be in a strange part of our world, and the film may contain some outrageous events, but there are not generally activities taking place that supersede our perceptions of everyday life. As I see it, that's why product placements work OK in films, but not in comics. The flip side to that same argument revolves around the ads that movie theaters now shove down our throats. I cannot even remember how many times I have seen news clips in which leaders of the film industry decry the current relentless decline in ticket sales. I honestly have to ask if these are not the dumbest people on the entire planet? They rail against piracy and home viewing as though those were the only reasons why people no longer want to shlep all the way across town to pay $8.50 to watch fifteen minutes !@#%$ ads. Think about it, you bunch of ignorant ninnies! Ads drive people away. Especially when large screen TV's and Tivo now offer you the option of skipping the ads entirely, in the privacy of your own home. It doesn't take a genius to calculate that the negative impact those ads create in consumer perceptions of value is far more of a loss than could ever be recouped from the payments received from advertisers. I'm sure it seems like easy money, but I believe that commercials before movies act as such a detriment to the enjoyment of watching a film that they are a primary cause of why consumers are leaving the theater industry in droves. Could the same thing happen in comics? It very well might. Print runs are already precariously low for most titles. Inserting a slew of obnoxious product placement ads into every comic book may very well be the corrupting factor that finally causes a significant number of our faithful fans to give up in disgust. Is that a risk the publishers are willing to take? Sadly, I'm afraid so...
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