The literary world, for whom no breeze is so fragrant as a whiff of scandal, has been in full frisson ever since the appearance of the novel The Bulgari Connection (Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 2001) by British author Fay Weldon. It is not the plot or the characters that has the literati clucking, but rather the quid pro quo it represents. Ms. Weldon was, in short, paid off—the precise amount remains a matter of confidence, if not conscience, between Ms. Weldon and her sponsor—to mention Italian jewelry and toiletries maker Bulgari a minimum of a dozen times in her book.
Frankly, the Connoisseur cannot help but admire the sangfroid with which Ms. Weldon held up her end of the bargain. “The problem with product placement is when you try to do it without being noticed,” she explained. To be sure, she could have gotten away with such hoary ruses as the old flip-through-the-Rolodex ploy: Baldwin. Broderick. Bulgari. Ah, there it is. Byron. Or, even more subtly: “That’s a large bull,” Gary said. She might even have disarmed critics by presenting her controversial oeuvre as an homage to the late Truman Capote, perhaps dubbing it Breakfast at Bulgari’s. Instead, she advised her publisher, “Let’s do it honorably, without any pretense.”
Honor aside, some have decried this as the harbinger of a distressing trend in the book game. What next, The Grapes of Rothschild? Thus Spake Xerox? Moby Dockers? When an artist in any medium is said to “acknowledge a debt,” this is generally taken to mean a creative influence. Thus, when modernist Jackson Pollock acknowledged his debt to de Kooning, one presumes he was alluding to color, composition, and brush strokes, not that he owed the latter 10 bucks.
However Faustian the bargain, artists have been promoting the in-terests of sponsors for centuries. Europe abounds with Renaissance-era churches whose stained glass windows and paintings depict, in various attitudes of piety, the artists’ patrons—typically, bankers and merchants who had paid handsomely. Occasionally, one can decipher, in ornate Latin script, such legends as: “This devout moment brought to you by the Rinaldi family, bakers of fine breads since 1310.”
Centuries later, energized by the mass media, brand names emerged as emblems of economic and social class, tastes, and world views. Today the fusion of commercialism and culture is taken for granted. An entire generation has grown up under the assumption that only the bidding kept Vivaldi’s Four Seasons from being known as Vivaldi’s Ritz-Carlton.
The medium providing the greatest potential for product placement, though, is the movies. This year’s offerings gave us Hannibal Lecter digging out his ghoulish snack from a Dean & Deluca gourmet picnic box in Hannibal, a medieval armorer engraving her patron’s state-of-the-art breastplate with Nike swoops in A Knight’s Tale, and a Fed Ex shipment sinking beneath the waves in Cast Away. Just what this last scene does for Fed Ex’s image is hard to say, but at least it answers the question, Whatever happened to that package I shipped to the islands?
The pinnacle in product placement occurs when a movie inspires its own action figures—the Lion King, Godzilla, Luke Skywalker—thereby metamorphosing into a two-hour marketing vehicle that people pay to watch.
For the past 40 years, though, the undisputed champion in the arena of product placement is the Connoisseur’s old favorite, 007. The Connoisseur may have forgotten some of the plot lines—did Pussy Galore work for Dr. No or Blofeld?—but he will always remember that Bond wore a Rolex Oyster, drove an Aston Martin, and sucked down some five dozen Balkan Sobranie papyrosi every day.
With this in mind, the Connoisseur, normally so reticent in matters of taste, has been encouraged to reveal some of his personal penchants: the Ruf Porsche R Turbo when navigating the autobahn, British Air’s First Class sleeping compartment for flights abroad, Ashton Maduros from Holt’s in Philadelphia, the Bernstein Suite at Hôtel de Crillon in Paris, flutes of Veuve Cliquot Brut for . . . let’s just say . . . special moments.
Admittedly, endorsement deals have been slow in coming in, but the Connoisseur expects things will pick up once his action figure hits the stores.