Is Stephen King on the General Mills Payroll?

11/10/2009 4:25 PM |

Whered you get the money for that motorcycle?
  • Where’d you get the money for that motorcycle?

For television viewers and fans of Hollywood blockbusters, product placement is unavoidable: you either accept it or abandon those media altogether. But, even if we reluctantly consent to such crass advertising assaults so we can watch otherwise distinctive fare like 30 Rock or Mad Men, that doesn’t mean we should condone their appearances in other art forms—like literature, into which they seem to have begun to creep.

Well, if you want to call Stephen King “literature”.

Last week, the New Yorker published a new story by King (who has contributed at least ten stories and personal essays to the magazine in the last twenty years) to coincide with the release of his latest 1,000-page novel, Under the Dome. The roughly 3,000-word story, “Premium Harmony,” contains seven references to Bugles, General Mills’ saturated fat-rich corn chips.

The snack, in fact, becomes the defining characteristic of a minor character, an overweight woman who lingers around the scene of a heart attack. Her Homeric Kingian epithet is “the woman with the Bugles”.

Product placement is tricky to judge. As Americans, we occupy a culture saturated with logos and brand names, some of which become a part of our lives to the point that they can help to define who we are. For instance, King’s story begins with several references to Wal-Mart: the characters are on their way there, they discuss its lower prices, and the protagonist expounds on the superstore’s effect on the local economy.

But in many if not most parts of America, Wal-Mart does dominate local commerce, and King uses these references to help the reader situate the characters and understand better the place they inhabit.

Not every item mentioned in the story has a brand name. The store the characters stop at is a “Quik-Pik,” not a 7-11. The main character mentions he drank a “cream soda,” not an A&W. He smokes “Premium Harmony” cigarettes. King, however, also name drops a few other snack foods—Twinkies, Little Debbies, Hostess Sno Balls, Ho Hos—but, in calling out their names only once or twice, you could argue that he adds flavor to the story through specificity. At least, I’m willing to buy that for argument’s sake. (Though “Hostess” Sno Balls seems redundant to the point of suspicious, like saying you manipulated a jpeg using Adobe Photoshop.)

But seven references to Bugles? If the point is just to drive home the fact that she’s fat, she could just be holding a bag of good ol’ potato chips.

5 Comment

  • I read the story, and I felt King wasn’t using the brand names of these snack foods to advertise them so much as to draw attention to their tremendous effect on American lifestyles and life expectancy. This is no Wayne’s World Doritos ad; it made me feel about bugles the way Liz Lemon’s horrible stomach problems in “Stone Mountain” made me feel about chuckle sandwiches.

  • Yeah, I understand that argument, but still….seven!?! And, honestly, the story made me want a bag of Bugles…the woman eating them, you’ll remember, is alive and well by story’s end!

  • I think we also have to look at Steven King’s track record of trying to humanize his characters by making them do things with things that real people know about but would not do with things… Case in point: Jack chews Excedrin in the Shining (book not movie) like they are pez – because he’s an alcoholic who hasn’t given his life over to Jesus or something. Everybody knows Excedrin, so everybody commiserates with his obsession, sort of. Seven times is a lot for a short story in the New Yorker though… And maybe an even more appropriate question is: Why is the New Yorker publishing King to begin with? Isn’t he more of, like, an Esquire and Playboy kinda guy?

  • Have you ever had those Caramel Bugles? Those are to die for!

  • @orchst: thanks for the context. (I’m admittedly far from a King scholar…I read “The Mist”….) Agreed: seven is too many! And I too thought it was strange for The New Yorker to publish him, but apparently he’s had quite a few pieces in there, albeit over a long period of time.

    @susanne: literally?