Thursday, April 03, 2008

Webcomic Product Placement

One of my favorite Webcomics, the library-themed Unshelved, is doing something that I don't particularly like. This week's entire run of strips is basically a running ad for a sponsor, with the characters extolling the virtues of the sponsor's service.

Unshelved has long had weekly sponsors, with ads running in the feed above the strips, but until now the editorial content of the strips has seemed to be independent.

I understand that it's a tough world out there, and that when creators are trying to make a living at producing a free Webcomic it must be tempting to grab at any source of revenue that comes along. Advertising, merchandise, and personal appearances are all accepted ways of keeping the cash-flow coming; but selling out the actual content of the strip seems like, well, selling out.

Worse, it calls into question the integrity of the rest of the strip. One of Unshelved's most popular features is the Sunday "Book Club" strips, wherein one of the characters of the strip will "book talk" a recommended book. How long until these "Book Club" strips become paid-for by publishers?

Hopefully the Unshelved creators will see that the long-term negatives for doing such a deal outweigh any short-term financial gain.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad we're one of your favorites. But we're really not writing about our sponsor, except in a fairly removed, generic way. I've just blogged about this at length over at our site..

Will Belden said...

I've been reading the comic for a couple of months now. I'm guessing you're referring to the "online tutor" thing? I never ONCE noticed it was even related to the ads. It just seemed funny to me.

Anonymous said...

Seriously? I didn't even notice. If it was supposed to be subtle, it missed by a long shot. But I think you're being overly suspicious: Unshelved has a track record that defies your assumption.

boyhowdy said...

Long time reader of Unshelved, so you're welcome to call me biased. But even if we assume causality between the advertiser and the strip subject this week, I wonder why you assume that the causality runs that way?

My own interpretation would have been much more open -- most cartoonists have a bank of vague ideas for week-long threads in their head, and even if one such idea was triggered towards "paper" by the same conversation that led to the choice of sponsor, that does not inherently equal sponsorship within the comic in any sense of the word.

Even if I were to assume a more deliberate causality, I would have been more prone to suggest that the sponsor may have been chosen because Bill had an inkling to tackle this subject. Certainly, tailoring a sponsor to content is not inappropriate, is it?

To me, the mutual incidence of SUBJECT between a particular service and a comic about the TYPE of service no more suggests an inappropriate comic tie-in than does a Ford Truck ad in the truck edition of Car and Driver magazine. If the article touted Ford more than anything, sure. But there is a difference between tutoring and a particular service that provides it. And so far, there is no such product-based appearance in the comic this week.

If you genuinely want to suggest that the strip subject has been driven BY the advertiser, then I think the onus is on you. Without any evidence, your assignation of such causality seems unfounded, misleading, and unfair.

Dave Carter said...

Bill: I'm surprised that you and Gene didn't foresee that running a week-long sequence about the benefits of homework help services while at the same time running an ad banner above for just such a service wouldn't be seen as a conflict by some. I'm willing to give you guys the benefit of the doubt that this is not what you intended.

I apologize if my post came off as more confrontational than I intended. I meant to indicate that I was worried about the integrity of the strip, not call your personal integrity into question. I realize that may be splitting a fine point, and I obviously blew the distinction.

I meant it when I said that Unshelved is one of my favorite strips. I've blogged quite favorably about it many times. I will continue to read and (hopefully) enjoy it in the future.

Stephanie said...

Funny thing to me is that I don't really see this week's strip as extolling the virtues of the service at all. The way I read it (and maybe I'm just way off base) was that the characters were reluctantly going that way simply because they didn't have the time to answer all of the student questions. I got the impression that, had they the time, they considered themselves a much better resource than the service. It's possible that I'm reading an interpretation into the strip based on the RSS feed I get from Unshelved that included this week - if I remember correctly - a comment from Bill that he was shocked that the sponsor was even interested in sponsoring this particular week since the strips were not all that flattering to her service.

Whether my interpretation is correct or not and regardless of whether my 40 year old brain is failing me in the memory department, I'm with the other people who commented that it never dawned on them that the sponsor was somehow influencing the strip's content. It's just not Bill and Gene's style to do that. Never have before, don't see any reason for them to start now.

Stephanie said...

Sorry for the double post but I just wanted to show you that I'm not completely losing my mind.

Here is part of the 3/31/08 post from the Unshelved blog:

"Sponsors :

posted Monday, March 31, 2008 12:09:00 PM by Bill

At ALA a few months ago I ended up in a conversation with Galen Warden from I told her we had been writing a sequence about online homework help, and she asked if she could sponsor it. If you think about it, that's kind of brave. They were asking to pay to sponsor, sight unseen, a sequence of strips essentially roasting their product and the people who use it. We admire that kind of chutzpah, so we said yes."

There's more to the post but it was the "roasting their product and the people who use it" part that stuck with me while reading this week's strips.

To see the full post, go to:

Dave Carter said...

I'm turning off further comments on this thread as I feel that what needs to be said has been said by the comments made already.

In conclusion, I'll concede that I may have misread motivations, but hope that Bill & Gene will be more aware of the appearance of conflicts in the future.

(Bill, if you'd like to email me any further responses, I'll be happy to post them.)

And with that, let's go back to enjoying our comics, shall we?