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Times Union: Is product placement in comics a concern?

Monica Bartoszek, senior editor/operations for the Times Union questioned the perceived practice of commercial product placement in comic strips after a reader mailed her 10 comic strip clippings from a 4-day period which included:

  • Pickles: Feb. 5, iPod
  • The Pajama Diaries: Feb. 5, Barbie
  • Grand Avenue: Feb. 5, Calgon
  • Close to Home: Feb. 6, Target
  • Mother Goose & Grimm: Feb. 6, Mr. Peanut
  • Pearls Before Swine: Feb. 5, Hallmark (without trademark); Feb. 7, Hallmark (with trademark)
  • Get Fuzzy: Feb. 3, Band-Aids; Feb. 8, Excedrin and several Boston Red Sox caps

While she admits that there isn’t anything wrong with the practice, she contacted Kelly McBride, ethics group leader, of the Poynter Institute who opines:

Kelly McBride, the Ethics Group leader at Poynter Institute, wonders if there are rules in artists contracts or can cartoonists do whatever they want? Are cartoonists “double-dipping” and being paid for product placement? The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a school for journalists and also deals with ethical issues.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with it, but if we’re inundated with commercials in cartoons will it turn our readers off? Readers want to be aware of what’s going on as they make their choice about what to read or not to read. Audiences are demanding transparency, McBride says.

Bartoszek also questioned syndicates. Amy Lago of Washington Post Writers Group and Mary Anne Grimes of United Media both chalk it up to the cartoonist using words or references that any one would use in conversation.

Pearls Before Swine creator Stephan Pastis did respond to the blog post and said,

“No, I don’t benefit in any way. I think that would be pretty unethical if anyone did that. I just used it because if you’re going to reference a greeting card company, that’s the one everyone knows.”

Which leads me to this conclusion: if there was legitimate money in product placement in the comics, then Scott Adams would have been doing it now for years.

Hat tip to E&P.

Community Comments

#1 Norm Feuti
@ 6:58 am

I think most cartoonists (myself included) occasionally use real product names in their strips as pop culture references, or to make the dialogue more conversational.

The idea that cartoonists are getting rich off of product placement is absurd and insulting. Most cartoonists work for meager incomes and those few who have become wealthy have done it through their own hard work and transparent licensing.

The readers who are supposedly “demanding transparency” will be sorely disappointed if they get it.

“Oh my God, you only make how much?!”

#2 brian
@ 7:18 am

I get free hot dogs at Fenway for putting a Red Sox cap on Doug. Which, factoring in the cost of hot dogs at Fenway, is a little over $500,ooo a year.

#3 Scott Nickel
@ 7:46 am

Hey, where do I sign up for this “product placement” cash? I WANT to to double dip!

[kidding, of course. I would never do anything so unethical. Unless it involved a ton of cash.]

#4 Alan Gardner
@ 8:07 am

I don’t consider myself to be ethically challenged, but I’m not seeing the problem with it. Comics is a commercial product, much like a radio, television program or movie. If the cartoonists wants to subliminally place products into the strip in the background and receive money for doing so – where’s the ethical dilemma in that? There might be negative readership push-back which I could understand – but where is it stated that a cartoonist is prohibited from doing such a thing?

#5 Dan Bielinski
@ 8:44 am

I was a Cubs fan forever until I started reading “Get Fuzzy”

Now I’m a Red Sox fan and own over 50 Red Sox hats.

Dang you, Darby!!!!

#6 Norm Feuti
@ 9:03 am

I think most cartoonists would consider it artistically damaging, but I agree with you Alan — there would be nothing inherently unethical about it. Product placement in television and movies is common practice.

I think such a thing would tend to be self-regulating. I think any artist who overindulged in blatant product shilling would lose his or her credibility and eventually their audience.

What I find absurd is the thought that some watchdog group needs to get involved in a “problem” that doesn’t exist. What I find insulting is the thought that cartoonists should be limited in the way they capitalize on their work and are held to a manufactured “ethical” standard that doesn’t exist in other mediums.

There seems to be this growing crazy sentiment out there that cartoonists should all work for nothing and diligently put their art up on the internet for the world to see free of charge. The second they try to make some extra coin, their labeled as greedy sell-outs.

The person/people making these queries and accusations obviously have no idea how cartoonists get paid or how the industry works, so it’s a bit nauseating to have them finger wagging at us.

#7 brian
@ 9:25 am

Well said Norm.

#8 Alan Gardner
@ 9:29 am

I received an email from a syndicated cartoonist. While I have permission to use part of the email, I’ve agreed to not disclose specific references and the like.

This cartoonist mentioned that a while back she (okay, while trying not disclose the name, I’ve seriously reduced the pool of suspects to about five. Aauurgh.) approached her syndicate editor about trying to work a deal with a national retail chain to insert a product (a generic product was already frequently used). This is what she was told:

I was told that editors who are paying to publish a strip would have a problem with the fact that they are paying for a product (strip) which is using that paid slot to make money from another source. It would be like they are paying for a product to advertise another product. It would open a whole can of worms…who gets what percentage?, etc.

Once again, I’m not sure there are ethical issues involved, but this clearly shows that the newspaper market is uniquely weird. It has quirky language rules (which I’ve been on record as supporting) and it has a problem with comics that *might* be endorsing products. And I say *might* because it would be impossible to ever know if Pastis is getting a kick-back from Hallmark or if he’s using it as a matter of word choice. Radio stations, movie theaters don’t seem to have the same concerns.

#9 patty leidy
@ 10:32 am

if i had a dime for everytime I mentioned PEZ in my strip I’d be a …well better off girl thats for sure!
it dosen’t bother me in the least..unless it seems obviously out of place for the story line…

#10 JM
@ 11:17 am

Some people do have odd, dated ideas about this industry…I hope they don’t find out cartoonists use computers.

#11 Eric Burke
@ 8:45 pm

I don’t see any reason why syndicated cartoonists(or web cartoonists) can’t make money for product placements. Cartoon characters are used in advertising(Snoopy w/Met Life) with no problems, so why can’t other cartoonists use product placements, ESPECIALLY if they use the product?

And why does the newspaper editor need to know? They pay 70’s rates as it is, while the newspapers make all that advert $$$…it’s no business of theirs if a comic strip uses product placement.

Sure, editors pay for the content of a strip, but they’re doing so to bring in readers to the paper, a fact in which advertisers bank on.

Syndicates should have already been working on product placement money, IMO…get you folks more $$$…or at least swag!


#12 Scott Nickel
@ 9:04 pm

This is a shame, because with Triple Take, we could have THREE product placements per strip! Curse you, newspaper editors!

#13 Ed
@ 5:38 am

I want this out there for the record:

My comic starts in May and the first strip DOES mention Snapple (click the link in my name to read it) but that’s only because 2 years ago, Snapple found out I was writing a comic strip proposal in my apartment and asked that I put a mention of them in it so that if it beat the 6,000 to 1 odds of getting picked by a syndicate, then made it through my 2 year development period, they would have an unproven, unknown strip mentioning them in the papers I launch in since (hopefully) that will be the lowest amount of papers I will ever be in. So, yes it is product placement, but not very GOOD product placement on Snapple’s part, so I don’t think it should count.

You may now return to your regularly scheduled lives, already in progress.

(Drink Snapple)

#14 Norm Feuti
@ 6:55 am

Good point Ed. I doubt if product placement in a comic strip would make very good business sense anyway.

I don’t know why this story bugs me so much. I think it’s the spreading of the false notion that if a cartoonist mentions a real-life product, he or she must be getting paid for it on the sly. That kind of asumption will undermine the writing in some people’s minds, so it’s not cool to put a bug in people’s ears without a valid reason to believe that it’s ever even happened.

The next time I mention an iPod in the strip, I don’t want people thinking a kickback from Apple was my motivation for writing the joke. I wouldn’t want the proliferation of such a fallacy to force me to water down my writing with transparently bogus product names, just so people don’t assume I’m a corporate shill.

Again, I don’t think there would necessarily be anything wrong with product placement … but at the same time, I don’t want people to think that I’m doing it.

Newspaper comic strips are sanitized enough. The last thing cartoonists need is for one person with too much time on his/her hands putting the wheels in motion for creating new restrictions and ethical dilemas based on a completely imaginary scenario.

I’m also concerned with the ascertion that 1 editor + 1 reader +1 Ethics Group Leader = “audiences are demanding transparency”.

#15 Scott Nickel
@ 2:12 pm

Y’know this whole ridiculous story would make a great week’s worth of strips. Go for it Ed or Norm!

Maybe Cooper could be accused of mentioning products in his blog and getting a kickback. :)

#16 Scott Nickel
@ 2:13 pm

p.s. Ed, you’re such a sell-out.

I see big things in your future.

#17 Ed
@ 11:01 pm

LOL! Thanks Scott!

And Norm, the story probably bugs you for the same reason you’re able to be a cartoonist in the first palce. Hemmingway referred to it as the ‘built-in BS detector’.

However, here’s something I noticed:

I did some research and found out that the other day Monica Bartoszek, senior editor/operations for the Times Union mentioned the following products in her blog:

* iPod
* Barbie
* Calgon
* Target
* Mr. Peanut
* Hallmark (without trademark)
* Hallmark (with trademark)
* Band-Aids
* Excedrin
* Boston Red Sox caps

Hmmm…I wonder if this is some kind of organized blog-osphere product placement? ;)

#18 Norm Feuti
@ 12:50 am

Good idea Scott … Hmmm, but how could I fit product placement jokes into a strip about retail? That’s a toughy ;)

BTW, Ed. That Snapple joke was funny.

Do you have other samples anywhere, or are you saving them for the launch?

#19 Ed
@ 4:14 am

Thanks Norm! We actually have a total of 4 strips up on the myspace page right now.

#20 MJ, Editorial Cartoonist
@ 1:24 am

There are times when you just can’t get around using some type of product placement. I do it every so often not as an endorsement for the product but usually for the topic I’m drawing on. Point in case my latest toon Rat Food. Yes it’s obvious, but still funny. Just like Ed (click that name thing up there ^ to see it.)

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