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Posted at 10:45 AM ET, 08/13/2010

'Eat Pray Love': Parsing our feelings about all those product tie-ins

By Jen Chaney

Julia Roberts, in "Eat Pray Love," wearing a hat you can probably buy somewhere. (Sony)

When most women finished reading the final words of easily digestible spiritual wisdom in Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat Pray Love," they probably didn't close the book and think: "What I really need right now is a $359.99 Indonesian oversized bench with a cushion."

But just such a bench -- and canisters of "Eat Pray Love" black tea, and leather journals, and tunics that would look perfectly casual yet chic on that next visit to an ashram in India -- are all for sale as part of the marketing blitz surrounding the release of "Eat Pray Love," the movie. World Market has devoted an entire department to products tied, both vaguely and directly, with the New Age-y rom-com. The Home Shopping Network has done a similar push. And plenty of travel agencies are trying to capitalize on what already was a phenomenon, and could become an even bigger one, by offering packages to Italy, India and Bali to women seeking to reconnect with their inner music.

As someone who enjoyed the book but isn't necessarily a diehard eat-pray-lover, even I initially found the commercialization of Gilbert's best-seller a bit troubling. What was supposed to be a story about shedding pettiness and material concerns, about regaining a sense of self after a difficult divorce, about building a life of quiet happiness and peace, has now become an opportunity to sell us bracelets, body cream and gelato makers. Could other women be interested in buying these products, I wondered?

Preliminary evidence suggests the answer is yes.

Liz Allen, the senior vice president of marketing for World Market, says many of the chain's "Eat Pray Love" products are doing brisk business. While she could not quote direct sales figures, she said items like the leather journals and a set of $4.99 Rosewood prayer beads are moving quickly off of store shelves.

"We've been working on this for almost a year with Sony," Allen said of the movie marketing tie-in. "I can't imagine a more perfect fit for who we are and what we're about and our customer demographic."

In a press release issues yesterday, Yahoo also reported that (not surprisingly) searches for "Eat Pray Love" are up 956 percent this month, which ncludes attempts to find information about the book, the movie soundtrack and travel. But the Web site also reports a spike in search terms like "eat pray love gifts," "eat pray love merchandise" and "eat pray love perfume." ("For the woman who wants to smell like incense, red wine and authentic Neapolitan pizza" ... okay, I made up that slogan, but it kind of works, doesn't it?)

So clearly at least some consumers are not only fine with all this, they're loving it.

That Indonesian bench, part of World Market's "Eat Pray Love" shop. (Courtesy of World Market)

I asked Allen, who has read Gilbert's book, if it feels strange to be selling "Eat Pray Love"-related yoga mats to the masses given the book's themes. She says she understands why the consumerism may not sit well with some who see the text as a Bible for the modern woman. But given World Market's pre-existing focus on products from around the globe, she thinks this is, more than anything, an opportunity to allow anyone who loves the book and movie to continue relishing the experience.

"We're not overly concerned about [backlash]," she says. "Customers can simply choose to participate or not."

Which got me thinking. Movies in other genres regularly bathe in exactly the same kind of product tie-in swimming pool that "Eat Pray Love" has waded into. Within the past year alone, we've had all kinds of "Iron Man 2," "Toy Story 3" and "Avatar" merch pushed in our faces, and it didn't raise so much as a portion of one of my eyebrows.

But when "Sex and the City 2" teamed up with Macy's and Lipton, that bugged me, even though that franchise is about as overtly commercial as you can get. Is there some part of me -- and some part of other women -- that rejects the idea of female-oriented movies spawning so many products? Or is it simply a matter of knowing when to say when?

The more I thought about the "Eat Pray Love" shopping experience, for example, the more I felt that Sony might have been better off developing a single partnership with World Market -- perhaps with fewer products -- and leaving it at that. Something about the whole Home Shopping Network association pushed the "sell, sell, sell" element too far.

Then again, If someone wants to buy a journal, or even that Indonesian oversized bench, who am I to judge? Didn't "Eat Pray Love" teach us to live and let live, after all?

Or should I just stop thinking about this, eat a slice of pizza and meditate? You tell me by weighing in with a comment.

By Jen Chaney  | August 13, 2010; 10:45 AM ET
Categories:  Movies  
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A friend recommended the book to me and I planned to read it. Then I read about all of the products being hawked and it turned me off. I do not plan to read the book nor see the movie.

Posted by: indvoter37 | August 13, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I'm only familiar with the Eat, Pray, Love stuff they're promoting at World Market, so I can't speak to the promotions on HSN. It doesn't bother me (1) because I love World Market, and (2) because a lot of what they're promoting is stuff World Market already sells - it isn't like they created crappy products in order to make a quick profit off of the book and movie's popularity. World Market has been selling Indonesian furniture, malas, candles, etc. for years. The "Eat, Pray, Love" Stone Buddha with Candleholder ( I picked 2 of them up 3 years ago, at 40% off (World Market has great coupons). Whatever movie tie-ins World Market needs to do to keep itself in business is fine with me. I just wish they'd re-open the one near me.

(I'm not affiliated with World Market, I'm just a huge fan of the store.)

Posted by: themegnapkin | August 13, 2010 11:31 AM | Report abuse

Jen, guess you would have a problem with rom-com "action figures" too. And I don't even want to think about what the commercial spinoffs of the Barot "I'm not dead yet" biopic might be.

Posted by: reddragon1 | August 13, 2010 11:35 AM | Report abuse

"Within the past year alone, we've had all kinds of "Iron Man 2," "Toy Story 3" and "Avatar" merch pushed in our faces, and it didn't raise so much as a portion of one of my eyebrows." I'm guessing that most of the merchandise in this category are aimed at children or young teenagers. But the products based on "Eat Pray Love" seemed to be aimed at adults. Do you suppose the merchandising blitz around "Eat Pray Love" makes the book's core audience feel as if they're being treated like children by the merchandisers?

Posted by: KevFromArlington | August 13, 2010 11:41 AM | Report abuse

Interesting way of putting it, KevFromArlington.

Also, I completely forgot to mention in this post that Kohl's is trying to capitalize on this, too. Which also bugs me more than the World Market thing for some reason:

Posted by: Jen Chaney | August 13, 2010 11:45 AM | Report abuse

It's kind of hard to work up much umbrage when the space between the article and the comments section includes three ads and the words, "Buy a link here."

That said, I'm not going to rush out and buy some more officially-sanctioned "They Call Me Johnny Wadd" merchandise any time soon.

Posted by: byoolin1 | August 13, 2010 11:46 AM | Report abuse

Product tie-ins to movies are hardly a new concept. While Michael J. Fox's asking for a Tab in "Back to the Future" in 1985 didn't exactly qualify, by 1992 "Wayne's World" -- seven years later and nearly 20 years ago now -- did a whole spoof on tie-ins ("Nuprin. Little. Yellow. Pills.").

Also don't forget that James Bond drinks Smirnoff. Which is kinda laughable now in the era of Gray Goose and ten flavors of Stoli. Tie-ins can also date a film too.

Today, product tie-ins are a given; certainly saves the need for the set people on old sitcoms to create those irritating fake boxes of laundry detergent (which, these days, would be an even bigger distraction on a movie screen than a box of Tide).

It's when the camera longingly pans the top and sides of the box that the blatant contract details take away from the movie itself. (Clause 1.123: Full top and sides of box must be visible near the center of the screen at a distance of not more than four centimeters from the second lead's forearm.)

Will I be looking at Toys R Us for a "The Switch" OB-GYN office for my kid's Barbie? Hardly. And as for buying "Eat, Sh*t and Die" merchandise, I'm sure there are other, cheaper ways to do so for the discerning consumer with more than half a brain to spot marketing messages while at the cinema.

Posted by: td_in_baltimore | August 13, 2010 12:00 PM | Report abuse

are you suggesting that there might be cognitive dissonance in the hyper-commercialized goddess-worshipping damage-fests that constitute the 30-45f rom-com demographic? hahahaahahaha -- if only you knew... (just run)

Posted by: quintiliusvarus | August 13, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

I certainly believe that by donning an Indian-style embroidered tunic while sitting on my yoga mat eating pasta will make Javier Bardem leave Penelope Cruz for me.

Posted by: auntiemare | August 13, 2010 12:26 PM | Report abuse

I'm sure Elizabeth Gilbert is a good writer, but I wasn't even interested in the book, let alone this movie. Because, you know, it must have been so tough for her to be a well-lauded author so young and that she could fund an entire year abroad from an advance on a writing project.

Oh yeah, and of course it ends with finding love with a hunky man (after divorcing her husband and her failed affair). I might as well read Judith Krantz - at least we know that's a fairy-tale.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | August 13, 2010 12:33 PM | Report abuse

Agree, Chasmosaur1. Eat Pray Love was a commercial venture from the get-go, so why should the movie be any different?

Posted by: mat00 | August 13, 2010 1:05 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sick of blatant product placement on TV too.

This summer I have seen cars pushed ad nauseum on Burn Notice (with stupid commentary from a character too, along the lines of, "When you're in a high-speed chase, real-wheel drive really comes in handy." and Royal Pains; Kit Kat candy pushed on The Closer; an SUV shown all the time on Clean House; and Pledge products in many shots on Flipping Out.

Maybe I watch too much TV ...

Posted by: Vikkie | August 13, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

I'm totally turned off by the crass consumerism and shoving conspicuous consumption down our throats, too. I read the book before it became a success -- I have no desire now to see the movie, as the whole thing has become so tasteless.

If I'm going to buy an Indonesian bench or a journal, I'm going to do it regardless of some book or movie -- and the reverse is also true. I'm not likely to buy something based on their product pushing/placement. Guess based on that, I'm not their target audience.

Posted by: Californian11 | August 13, 2010 3:04 PM | Report abuse

LOL, Vikkie ... I have the same reaction when I see a commercial for some super heavy-duty truck during "Ice Road Truckers". The commentator talking about 40-below temps and avalanches and building an ice road ... yeah, 'cause a whole lot of men buying those trucks are doing that. Uh huh.

Posted by: Californian11 | August 13, 2010 3:08 PM | Report abuse

It also may be off-putting because we used to use all those "exclusive" things like balinese lanterns, etc... to help us identify cool, in-the-know people like us, and now that they've gone mass where even a housewife in Akron can buy one, we're going to have to find athother way to identify the sneetches on the beeches.

None of us likes to think of ourselves as people who divide the world between Us and Them, but we all kind of do this. So, when They start to use the identifiers we use for Us it pulls out our moorings, and we need to find another way to identify Us.

Posted by: DCLocal20 | August 13, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Oh, who cares? Anything that will stimulate this economy is a good thing, but let's have the tacky stuff made in the USA.

Posted by: kabuki3 | August 13, 2010 5:53 PM | Report abuse

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