YOU never forget your first time. Mine was 13 years ago, just after my first book came out in paperback. My literary agent called and said I’d been asked to be a “campus ambassador” for a brand of feminine-protection products. Naturally, I had questions.
“Do I have to dress up as a giant tampon?” I asked my agent.
“Could I dress up as a giant tampon?” I inquired.
“Do you want me to ask?”
“Yes! And find out if there are strings attached!”
“I’m hanging up now,” she said.
“Well, you can’t blame me,” I told her meekly. “It’s just a lot to absorb.”
This happens every year or two — I’ll get a call or email from a shoe company or a department store or a hotel chain asking me to write a story, sit on a panel, somehow lend my name to their brand. Ten years ago, I worked with an adult-beverage company to introduce a new wine for women — I judged a contest, they sponsored a book party. Since then, requests have gotten increasingly intimate. Last month, I was offered $20,000 to provide “a mom’s perspective” on head lice. (How do they know?) Last week, it was $15,000 to talk up a new yeast-infection cream. (How do they … wait. Never mind.)
All of this has occasioned some deep thoughts. When Tina Fey and Aretha Franklin do ads for American Express, when Stephen Colbert plugs pistachios and Kevin Bacon sells eggs, and short fiction by Toni Morrison and Jeffrey Eugenides is available on Chipotle cups, does “artistic integrity” mean anything anymore?
How many former MTV “Teen Moms” did the lice people go through before they got to my name? Is there something about me that says “yeast infection,” and if so, can I change it?
The bigger mystery is how a novelist in Philadelphia attracted a marketer’s notice in the first place. In my opinion, writers, even best-selling ones, are precisely the right degree of famous, which is basically not famous at all. I sometimes get recognized in public — usually when I’ve combed my hair and am casually lingering in the “W” section of my local bookstore with the name tag I “forgot” to take off — but there aren’t paparazzi at my nail salon or screaming teenagers asking for selfies when I’m getting my upper lip waxed. (How does Jonathan Franzen stand it?)
It turns out that even a mere writer of women’s fiction can be marketable. “You’re a brand name,” said Lisa Granatstein of Adweek. “And you’ve become a brand yourself.” (Evidently, a brand that sits around in wet bathing suits a lot.) “Marketers are looking for a certain type of voice, and if your voice and your humor could speak to their brand, and they see you’ve got a massive social following, they’ll go after you.”
I’ve amassed 110,000 Twitter followers and over 94,000 “fans” on Facebook. Not bad for a writer; small potatoes compared with Taylor Swift, who’s got over 56 million Twitter followers, or even the “American Idol” runner-up/politician Clay Aiken, with over 385,000.
But it’s not just about how many followers you have, it’s about who they are. If one of your followers has a million followers of her own, or is a reporter at a big paper or the editor of a national magazine, you become that much more desirable to a company that might hope for a funny tweet that could blow up, or even become a story.
Sponsored tweets aren’t about replacing traditional ads, but about “creating a kind of surround-sound on different platforms,” said Annie Heckenberger, a vice president at the ad agency Red Tettemer O’Connell + Partners. Even if the tweets never go viral or attract traditional media attention, getting 10 cat lovers whose candid snapshots are huge on their blogs to do sponsored posts is cheaper than buying an ad in “Catster.” Want to reach sports-minded young men? Skip the Super Bowl ad and go after the YouTubers whose goofy videos of underwater Nerf gunfights got over 100,000 hits. Got a dress to sell? Pray that Vogue features it — or pay 50 influential Instagrammers to wear it, and watch it fly off the racks.
The queen of this brave new world is — no surprise — Kim Kardashian, who has more than 30 million Twitter followers, to whom she pushes everything from shoes to lip balm to her preferred brand of waist trainer (Google it).
For her 140-character endorsements, Ms. Kardashian can collect a fee that’s rumored to be anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 (her publicist did not respond to a request for a comment). Ms. Granatstein believes that figure is not out of line. “Her tweets are valuable,” she said. “She reaches people far and wide. She has loyal followers who will retweet her and, eventually, some of those followers will try the product.”
Even folks with an un-Kardashian fan base can get in on the action. If you search #ad or #sponsored on Twitter, you’ll find a few boldfaced names (Padma Lakshmi! Wendy Williams!) and an awful lot of mom-bloggers-next-door. Ms. Heckenberger describes it as the 2.0 version of the Avon Lady model, where “connected” members of the community spread the word to their virtual neighborhood. Companies like Sway, Izea and Adly match products and celebrities, or bloggers, who often band together and offer themselves as a package deal. Payment is on a sliding scale, starting as low as $25, and ascending into the stratosphere.
If mom-bloggers won’t do and you’ve absolutely got to have a celebrity, you can get one, no matter how giggle-inducing your product might be. Witness the pairing of Lisa Rinna, of “Melrose Place” and “Days of Our Lives,” with an adult diaper from Depend called Silhouette for Women. Ms. Rinna, who reportedly made $2 million from that commercial, said the paycheck is the most money she’s ever made for a job, and that the company made nearly a quarter-million-dollar donation to Dress for Success, a charity she supports.
For years, I’ve declined requests, blithely tweeting about books that I love and sports bras that fit and the deliciousness of the fried chicken at Federal Donuts without expecting so much as a free wing in return. But if prizewinning authors are taking a fast-food chain’s cash, and the mom behind me in the car pool lane is getting paid to Facebook about Poise pads, and there are big bucks for charity on the line, maybe it’s time to reconsider.
If I’m going, I’m going big. I’m holding out for an established brand whose goods have stood the test of time, whose commercials are iconic and whose name, like Kleenex, like Xerox, has become shorthand for its product.