Two Things Every Author Needs to Know About Using / Brand Names in Fiction

Two Things Every Author Needs to Know About Using Brand Names in Fiction

Consumerism in fiction has become increasingly prominent in recent years. Powerhouse companies have gone from mere advertisements—commercials during television shows, billboards outside ballparks, joint advertisements with blockbuster movies—to what many people consider a blatant overuse and occasionally even abuse of product placement in sports coliseums, movies, TV shows, and even books, such as Lauren Weisburger’s best-selling The Devil Wears Prada.

What probably began as a harmless and even unconscious attempt by authors to bring a sense of realism and verisimilitude to their writing has been eagerly pounced upon by advertising firms, who now pay movie producers and authors to feature their products in their stories.

In the literary world, this has become most obvious in Young Adult fiction (specifically books aimed at girls), which even go to such lengths as interrupting the flow of the story in order to state lengthy product details.

Dreamlander NIEA Finalist

Why Authors Should Care About Using Brand Names in Their Fiction

As a writer who rarely reads popular Young Adult fiction, I remained mostly unaware of this phenomenon until last year when I neared the conclusion of my portal fantasy Dreamlander. Because half the novel takes places in 21st-century Chicago, it provided me the first opportunity in years to write about a modern-day setting, complete with brand names.

In my ever-evolving quest to find that perfect “telling” detail that will bring scenes to life before my readers’ eyes, I included brand names in fiction, especially when it came to food and cars.

My main character’s best friend owned a Volkswagen Bug; his ex-girlfriend drove a Ford Mustang; his boss wanted a Dodge Viper. In the first draft, Orville Redenbacher, Eggos, Nestea, Holiday Inn, Days Inn, Four Seasons, Diet Coke, and who knows what else made an appearance. Trusting that most readers would be able to instantly recognize and visualize these famous brand names, I piled them in.

Orville Redenbachers Gourmet Popping Corn

But then, around about the time I was winding down my first draft, the whole consumerism issue finally penetrated my bubble of oblivion. My first reaction was to shrug and say, “Who cares?” Obviously, this debate could have no effect on my writing, since none of these big names were paying me so much as a thin dime for displaying their wares among my pages.

And I still believe that. As a reader I have no problem stumbling across the occasional brand name. If generality is the death of the novel, then specificity, including the specificity of brand names in fiction, must bring it life.

But that doesn’t negate the pitfalls of using brand names in fiction. Following are the two biggest reasons I decided it was usually better to avoid specifying common and popular consumer names:

1. Brand Names Are Often Short-Lived

What is universally recognized today may be forgotten in as little as five years. This can seriously damage the longevity of your writing. Even assuming the obscurity of the brand names isn’t enough to keep the book out of readers’ hands, your story will still be dated. How much better to cut the brand names and keep your work evergreen for generations to come?

2. Brands Names Can Detract Dull Your Writing

For example:

Mike pulled his orange Volkswagen Bug up to the curb in front of Walmart, gulped the last swig from his silver Diet Coke can and ate the last of his Snickers. He opened his car door and banged it against the Ford Mustang parked next to him. A woman, dressed in Prada with a Gucci handbag over her arm, leapt out of the Mustang and started screaming at him and dialing for the police on her Razr phone.

Now, honestly, is that not distracting? It may be specific down to the last detail, but instead of enlightening the reader, those details end up obliterating the story.

In the end, after pondering the question, I decided, as often happens, that a happy medium is best. The Bug, the Mustang, and the Diet Coke stayed. But most of the brand names I’d added to my first draft were axed in the second. Whether my approach has ended up balanced is for readers to decide, but my manuscript is now stronger thanks to my awareness of consumerism and its growing effect on fiction.

Tell me your opinion: How do you handle using brand names in fiction?

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in iTunes).

Two Things Every Author Needs to Know About Using Brand Names in Fiction

 

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Good thoughts on commercialism, Katie.

    I tried the pod-cast, but couldn’t get it to work. I’m on DSL but it never would download for me. Maybe I don’t have the right type of player on my computer for it to work.

  2. Hmm. It’s an Mp3, so it should run on just about anything. It runs off QuickTime on my computer. I’ll be interested to see if anyone else has a problem. Thanks for reading!

  3. You did really good with the podcast I really enjoyed it The only thing I can tell you is between the takes there’s a little popping noise like your clicking your mic on and off, you can get audio programs and edit those little sounds out. Other than that it was great 🙂
    Keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks for listening! I’m using the freed program Audacity to record. It’s good enough for now, but I may graduate to something a little more high tech as I progress.

  5. I loved the podcast! I totally agree with you about putting too many brand names into your writing.It can be way too distracting.

  6. Thanks! I agree. It’s the issue of distraction that bothers me way more than the consumerism.

  7. This is very interesting for me to read. I hadn’t thought of the fact that brand names were being used in books. It could cause a novel to be outdated, indeed.

  8. Two things, Katie.

    First, couldn’t get the podcast link to work. Came across as a dead link. Wonder if it’s a case issue (UPPER/lower). Some browsers may differentiate the two, meaning ‘mypic.jpg’ is different from ‘MyPic.JPG’.

    OR could be mp3s are blocked here at work – They’ve blocked audio streaming, so maybe…

    Second, Agree with you on the brand names, but I may have painted myself into a corner. In my second book in my series, the main character and his counterpart use a GameBoy to swap back and forth between dimensions. Designating the button combination to get the ‘warper’ to work, etc., rather specifies the game unit anyway.

    It’s used pretty heavily in the second book, and stolen in the third book (making for an interesting twist…).

    It’ll make the story outdated before it even comes out, because that system is already deprecated, with the DS and PSP.

    But it’ll be cool to young guys to have something to identify with. If they still HAVE a GameBoy, they might even try the keyboard combo to see what would happen.

    Enjoying your blogs. 🙂

  9. Thanks for reading, both of you!

    @Chris: I’m not the techiest gal on the planet, but I’m baffled as to why the link wouldn’t work for you. I know it’s working for other people, so perhaps it is just the computer you’re on. Whatever the reason, I’m sorry it’s being contrary. It’s now available on iTunes, however. Hopefully, that will work for those who can’t get the online link to behave.

    Honestly, I can’t see a problem in the use of the Gameboy, esp. if it’s integral to your story. Yes, you’re dating yourself, but making up a game console that doesn’t exist wouldn’t be as relatable to readers. So it sounds like you’ve chosen the lesser of two evils. I think it’s a great story concept!

  10. I definitely agree about the happy medium. Number one about brands being shortlived is an issue I’ve thought about in the past. I made some comment about Starbucks in my story and then wondered if it was smart because, who really knows if anyone in five or ten years will relate to Starbucks the way we relate to it now? Or at least most people, I don’t really drink coffee.

  11. One thing I discovered as I was replacing brand names in my first draft was that, often, a generic reference to the product was just as effective. In other words, mentioning “coffee” instead of “Starbucks” often got the point across just as well.

  12. I couldn’t get the podcast to work, either, and like Lynnette, I’m on DSL.

    As for branding, moderation is the key!

    Good post.

  13. The podcast is great. I’m going to subscribe in I-tunes even though I’ll continue to read/listen to it here.

    Your first point really hit the point with me. I’ve noticed that in a couple of “old” books that my mother gave me. It is something to keep in the back of our writer’s mind.

  14. @linda: I’m wondering if maybe the problem is that QuickTime isn’t updated?

    @Walk: Thanks so much for subscribing! I appreciate it. It is interesting to read books from the 1940s and ’50s and see the various now extinct brands that turn up. It’s a guessing game to figure out what’s being talked about sometimes!

  15. I’ve never really thought about commercialism in writing, and while the general rule is to be specific whenever possible – I think your example proves that this can very easily be overdone.

    Sometimes, I think the hardest brand names to avoid are the ones that have become the generalized name we tend to use like: Kleenix, Q-tips, and Saran Wrap.

  16. I don’t generally have a problem with the “generic” brand names. Folks in the south refer to all kinds of soda as “coke,” and I’ve always referred to tissues, regardless of the brand, as Kleenex. And have I no idea what I’d call Q-tips other than “Q-tips”!

  17. What a wonderful blog! I just discovered it and I’m so happy I did. Thanks for the great article on Passive Vs Active voice.

  18. Well, I’m so glad you did discover it! Glad you enjoyed the voice post.

  19. Well-writtern insightful post! I’ve yet to read anything online about this use and misuse of using brand names.

    It made me wonder if I should cut the kind of truck my MC is driving–after all–GMC is going going gone and who would have thought??

  20. Well, there are exceptions certainly. GMC may end up being our generation’s Model T – so classic it’s still well-known. Err. Probably not. But you never know! Thanks for reading.

  21. I agree. Sometimes putting in so many brands shows our lack of creativity in description. I think this happens also with historical writing–the writer, excited in all the research he did, bogs down the story with tying this kind of corset with this instrument in this way, etc., etc., etc.
    In the end, I think it’s the same problem as having too many adjectives and adverbs.

  22. You’re right, this is something I have noticed in historical novels, and I think it’s almost more of a problem there, because readers aren’t instantly familiar with the brand names used. Good point.

  23. Great post! Brand names can be used but shouldn’t overwhelm the story. They should give additional insight into the character. In my WIP, one of my astronaut characters drives a silver Jaguar, consistent with his personality. Of course, with the auto industries eliminating some brands, maybe I should make it a classic blue Thunderbird!

  24. Great observation. I wish I’d mentioned that in the post. One of the things I did try to do, esp. when referencing pop culture, was to pick names that were classics, instead of recent fads. For instance, when one of my characters was watching television, I had him watching a rerun of a sitcom from the ’60s, instead of something current.

  25. This is a good post. I’ve been thinking about this all week as I read different books. Sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. And, as you pointed out, using brands instantly dates a book, thereby limiting its longevity. Several versions of Jane Austen’s works already contain footnotes for clarification of words seldom, if ever, used today. Imagine if she had been more specific to the point of naming brands throughout her text. Would her works still be as classic? As approachable? As timeless?

  26. Thanks for stopping by, Tanya! As an admitted history buff, I love reading the sometimes-archaic terms in the old classics. But somehow the same obtuse words never come across quite as charmingly in modern historical fiction. What was natural for the writers of the day, such as Austen, often seems to me pretentious and unnecessary in modern writers. Though I probably shouldn’t shout that too loudly, since I’m sure I’m guilty of it myself at times!

  27. Brands in fiction? Writing the Spinward Fringe Series I have the pleasure of mutilating existing brand names and turning them into giant, greedy corporate empires or use them as the makers of favourite items that I can attach to a character. It can add flavour, but you’re right, even fictional brands can add unnecessary weight to a piece. I hate fat pieces, like my fiction to move like a freight train most of the time when I’m writing sci-fi, so the occasional brand is nice for colour, but most brand mentions were removed from Frontline now that I think of it…

    It’ll be interesting to see how much brand name dropping I do when I pen past the outline of the horror and supernatural books I have planned…

  28. I think satire would be a great place to do a brand namedropping. Has the potential to be vastly funny!

  29. What a great post, loved it! I’m the kind of person that notices little things like that (ask my friends, I see everything) and after awhile, it just grates on the nerves and I can’t read the book.

    I do wonder if authors do that because teens seem to gobble up name brands like candy and the more they see the more they might possibly relate? In my 30’s, I find it annoying and pandering, but if I was 13, I might gloss over it. I tend to not use name brands when I write unless I specifically need to.

  30. Thanks for reading! I think teens probably are more receptive to branding – and consumers take full advantage of it and the media’s power of manipulation. It’s something that parents and other concerned adults are becoming increasingly defensive about – and I don’t blame them!

  31. Lorna G. Poston says

    A story can be dated by brand names, but also by landmarks. A book set in NYC that mentions the Twin Towers, was obviously written prior to 9/11. Now, the Sears Tower has a new name. Same problem. 🙁

  32. I remember reading how the first Spider-Man movie had a poster in which the twin towers were reflected in Spider-Man’s eyes. The movie company hastily removed them after 9/11, so that the movie wouldn’t be dated.

  33. Lorna G. Poston says

    You probably already know this—I think everybody know this by now—but anyway: In the book E.T., Elliot gives his alien pal M&M’s. When movie Steven Spielberg was making the movie, he approached the candy company about using their product in the film.

    M&M’s refused to “be associated with such an asinine production.” Hence, the movie version of E.T. ate Reece’s Pieces.

    It was a box office smash and for years after that, Reece’s Pieces was “E.T.’s candy”.

    M&M’s blew it.

  34. LOL That’s great! I’d never heard that before.

  35. Great post. It reminded me of a Lois Duncan novel I read many years ago, “Killing Mr Griffin.” At the time I assumed it was written in the 80s or 90s because the character names, the clothing and the way the teenaged characters spoke seemed modern. Imagine my surprise when I flipped to the front and saw it was originally published in the 1960s!

    @MisterChris, I know I’m very late to the party, and this will probably never be read but re the GameBoy issue, I thought a way of getting past this could be by mentioning something about it being old, out of date technology, a relic from the past? That way your problem is solved. I mean, I’m already on to 3DS now 🙂

  36. That kind of book achieves a timelessness that makes it accessible to all generation. Not many books can do that, but it’s awesome when they do!

  37. I find I will use a brand name if it’s one of those big brands that have become synonymous with the item: Kleenex/tissue or Coke/soda. I know in 1 of WIP I refer to Shayne’s little, beat-up Toyota and when he makes it big, his Porsche. If it has a purpose to being there, I use it, otherwise, I tend to leave it out and be more general for the main reason you explain: why detract from the story telling for advertising. I don’t watch ads on TV, why would I put them in my story? 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Good examples with the Kleenex/Coke. I always call tissues Kleenexes. It feels weird to call them anything else! “Coke” as a synonym for any soda is more of a regional thing, so always good to keep that in mind.

  38. Good things to think about, especially as I’m going to start a modern-day satire diary in a few months. I agree with your thoughts here! And as far as Dreamlander goes, the car names gave me an instant visual which really helped. 😉

    Bouncing off this theme, I find it distracting when a fiction character who’s reading a book will give the title/author of the book they’re reading. In some books it works–but most times one fictional character talking about another fictional book is extremely disconcerting.

    ~Schuyler
    http://www.ladybibliophile.blogspot.com

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. I’ve even read books that reference other novels written by the same author. Talk about snapping me out of my suspension of disbelief bubble!

  39. I just ran across this issue. My detective had to go from a muscle car to an electric car and I said it was a Prius. Then it dawned on me that with how quickly that market is moving, I was really dating the story. Like the Razr phone in your example. Do they even make those anymore?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Exactly! I wrote this post four or five years ago, and I have to say I love how the examples have already ending up dating themselves. :p

  40. Hi K.M.,
    Great post! As a PhD student in marketing, as well as a novelist, I would like to add one other thing: it’s also important for novelists to ensure that if they brand-name drop, they don’t say anything bad about the brand without considering the possible legal ramifications it could have. If, for instance, I wrote a story where the zombie apocalypse was caused by the slow-but-steady poisoning effects of Diet Coke, which have been secretly-on-purpose hidden away by the Coca-Cola manufacturers for decades, it could cause some headaches for me when Coke’s corporate lawyers decide that it’s libelous (since, clearly, the manufacturers of Coke aren’t purposefully poisoning the planet). Not saying that you can’t do it – freedom of speech, and all – but just saying that in today’s litigation-happy world, it would cause a lot fewer headaches for authors if you pick fake brands if they’re going to be the source of major problems for your characters or plot.

    Happy writing to all!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Excellent point. There’s also some hoopla (I believe) about authors needing to include the (TM) sign after certain products. But I just generally avoid all that by not including the brand names to start with. :p

      • First, thanks for a great site and excellent advice. I read ’em all. As I read through this topic, I was specifically looking for a reference to liability or maybe even legal requirements surrounding the use of brand names – it’s something that’s a bit of a gray area for me. This clears it up and helps tremendously. Thanks again!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I will say I’m not a lawyer! But it’s my understanding that it’s perfectly all right to use brand names (or celebrity names, etc.). You won’t get in trouble unless you’re providing fodder for a liability suit.

  41. Lisa Searle says

    I have noticed this trend being very prominent in books over the last couple of years, in both indie and mainstream publications. As you said, although it might add a dash of reality, in all honesty every book I’ve read it in has yanked me straight out of the story.
    I don’t read a book to be reminded of my reality, I read to escape it.
    This is something I’m consciously aware of in my own writing and although I know I have the odd one here and there, I try to keep them as generic as possible.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The one I always think of isn’t strictly a brand name, but it’s close enough: a character mentioned going to see Pirates of the Caribbean in the theater. This was back before the original trilogy was all out, and it immediately popped my bubble of disbelief. Made the characters’ world seem *too* close to mine.

  42. Katie Lanting says

    I overall agree with this, but using brand names to intentionally date a setting could be useful. For instance, my current WIP takes place in the 1950’s and perhaps putting something in there iconic of that era (yet relevant to the story) would help readers situate themselves in the setting. But I agree, go overboard and you can start sounding distracting or like a cheap advertisement.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally agree. When you’re writing historical fiction or referencing historical facts, this rule is completely non-applicable.

  43. I’ve heard of writers being sued for using brands names in a derogatory way, so I’ve always avoided using them.

    In my last novel, I wanted a way for my male character to stand out from everyone else. He was well dressed, and very well off, and this needed to be quite clear from the get-go.

    For a very long time, I warred with myself over whether or not to drop Armani as his suit type. In the end I did, because it’s such a well known brand, and immediately gave the reader the impression I wanted to portray.

    This is the first time I can recall ever dropping a brand name in one of my books. I totally agree that using generic names (i.e. cola instead of coke) will give a book longevity while still informing the reader.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Whenever the brand name choice is there for a solid, well-thought out reason, you’re almost certainly safe to use it.

  44. Thank you, Kim! As relevant today as it was when first posted 🙂 Exactly what I was looking for during rewrites.

  45. Hannah Killian says

    In the series I have planned out (the six-prequels-two-trilogies-one-companion-and-one-spinoff one), there’s a running gag that pops up at least once in each book (actually, probably not all of them, but some) about a character being unable to solve a Rubik’s Cube despite having had it since he was eleven.

    Would I be okay with referring to it by name? On the one hand, I think so, but on the other, I’m a little leery about it.

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