Photo by Eutah Mizushima

By all accounts, March 1836 was a dreary, rainy month, with a coastal storm that might have made the streets of London cleaner than usual. Perhaps the people of London considered it the right time to find something to read, to take shelter from the cold gray skies above them. An escapist laugh to get them through the transition from the chill of winter to the sunshine of spring.

Publisher Edward Chapman felt he could provide just the sort of entertainment that would fit the bill, at a shilling an installment. He had been approached by illustrator Robert Seymour with a series of lighthearted images of a sporting club in the countryside that he felt could be a successful serial novel. Chapman, the artistic half of the publishing duo of Chapman & Hall sought out a young content creator who had recent success with a collection of short stories about Londoners to provide the text to accompany Seymour’s images.

Although it got off to a shaky start, Charles Dickens’ The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club or The Pickwick Papers, as it is known today, was a success by the tenth “episode” of the novel.

Today, serialization most brings to mind podcasts or blog posts, where writers are paid to create content to market brands through either search engine optimization or by creating content that is generally informative to the reader. Commercial content creation tends to run along the following lines:

  • Ten ways to start your day productively;
  • The five best home cleaning solutions you’ve been neglecting; and
  • Find out what these child actors look like today.

There are exceptions, of course. The BMW Films series surrounding the enigmatic driver is perhaps the best example of creating content that is (1) exceedingly expensive and (2) well-written. Sponsors such as Audible,, and Squarespace use narratives like the podcasts Lore and Welcome to Night Vale to promote their brands.

However common it may be for brands to support narrative writing when it comes to podcasts, it appears to be an unusual idea when it comes to actual text.

Writing in Inc. magazine, Adam Friedman brilliantly captured why companies should look to supporting more artistic endeavors like fiction as part of their branding efforts:

Stories are captivating. We’re eager to read and watch stories as they unfold and aren’t satisfied until we reach a conclusion.

This idea, that we are captivated by stories, by the mythology of good versus evil, and that a brand can succeed by putting its name behind such mythologies is not new. The comedy duo Abbot and Costello developed national fame on a sponsored radio program hosted by Kate Smith (now perhaps best known for the recording of God Bless America played at Yankees Stadium) and on their own radio show sponsored by Camel Cigarettes and Sal Hepatica (I had to look up this product; it is, shall we say, unappealing). The Shadow fought crime in radio shows sponsored, at times, by the US Army and Air Force.

If the idea of using fiction to promote brands is not new, why has it not been tried to any resounding effect (in text) on the Web? Some might argue that brands may not want to be associated with less savory aspects of stories (and what brand would want to be associated with, say, American Psycho or A Modest Proposal). However, given the appeal of fiction to consumers, it is not an avenue that brands should overlook.

Originally published at on May 28, 2017.

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