When Brand Preservation Gets Stupid

Blatant, shameful marketing sleight of hands are best to be avoided.

July 31, 2014
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 When Putnam Books released Tom Clancy’s Support and Defend in hardcover last week, it was treading into bold new ground, as it was the first “Tom Clancy” novel since his death in October, 2013. This wasn’t an original Clancy work published posthumously; it was written by another author, Mark Greaney, the espionage master’s collaborator over the past several years.

But unless you’re paying close attention, you’d think the Maryland military expert and iconic writer had never died. Tom Clancy’s name appears atop the title in the exact same font as on previous covers. The book’s official title isn’t “Tom Clancy’s Support and Defend, it’s “Tom Clancy Support and Defend.” The distinction — an apostrophe — is important here.

I wholeheartedly understand the desire to trade on a well-established brand, and Clancy’s name has become as much of a brand as that of Martha Stewart, Tony Hawk or Paul Newman. The author’s imprimatur has long appeared on paperback novel series he didn’t write, like Ops Center and Ghost Recon, and of course on video games like the Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six series. But when the brand is a human being, and that human passes away, how far should publishers and brand partners go to connect the product to the individual, and at what point do these efforts devolve into poor taste or worse, deception?

When Harland Sanders died in 1980, Kentucky Fried Chicken continued using his drawn image in both its logo and occasional TV commercials because he had literally become synonymous with the brand. But they never tried to resurrect him for television, or claim that the Colonel was actively tweaking the 11 herbs and spices from the grave. Nor did Wendy’s attempt to reanimate Dave Thomas after his death in 2002. Either attempt would have been viewed as abhorrent.

In the case of Support and Defend, the cover does get around to crediting Greaney as author. That in itself may provide some comfort to Clancy fans, as Greaney has been an acknowledged co-author of Dead or Alive, Locked On, Threat Vector and Command Authority, the last four “official” Clancy books. More skeptical fans have long suspected that Clancy was already loaning his name, posse of regular characters (Jack Ryan Senior and Junior, John Clark, Domingo Chavez, et al), and perhaps some ideas, and outsourcing most if not all the writing duties.

However, the full-size image of Clancy on the back cover in the traditional author slot is silliness, as if Putnam is actively trying to imply that he wrote Support and Defend before his death. And a banner across the front cover actually says “#1 New York Times-Bestselling Author” above Clancy’s name, like that phrase has some meaning atop a book written by somebody else. Imagine if Scholastic released a new Harry Potter novel penned by someone other than J.K. Rowling, and proclaimed “#1 New York Times-Bestselling Author” above Rowling’s name, and somewhere below in small print was “By Greta Van Alderson.” Yeah, you’re probably imagining a fan uprising.

There’s much precedent for carrying on popular literary series after their originators’ deaths. Jason Bourne and James Bond continue on long after Robert Ludlum and Ian Fleming have left us, but through the use of graphic design and strategic placement of the humble apostrophe it’s pretty clear these books were written by Erik Van Lustbader, John Gardner, and other capable scribes.

To release a new work clothed identically to the ones that came before it might not be deceptive — after all, if you’re buying a Clancy novel, you likely know he’s passed on and even likelier can read an author’s credit — but it certainly is a blatant, shameful bit of marketing sleight of hand. Let Clancy’s sunglasses-wearing photograph rest in peace.

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