January 07, 2010

Nikon, Prada, Prius, Estee Lauder, Michelob, Applebees...

In my opinion, there are three methods to handle brands in fiction:

Use name brands, like iPod, IHOP, Louis Vuitton. This should never be done gratuitously, but sometimes it is a shortcut to help the reader know what kind of character they are dealing with. It's not good to stereotype, but the fact is, what a character chooses to wear, use, or buy says something about them.

For instance, you can say a woman is carrying a purse (if it is relevant to the story, of course) but what kind of purse she carries lets the reader infer something about her. Maybe she carries a No Boundaries purse because she is frugal. Maybe she carries a knock-off designer purse because she is a social climber. Maybe she carries a genuine Louis Vuitton simply because she can afford it. Whatever the reason, the reader has greater insight into her character.

Use generic names like SUV, purse, Mp3 player. Sometimes I don't mind doing this. Saying a character drives a luxury SUV is fine - I don't need to say he drives a Chevy Tahoe for you to get the point. But other times generic names simply cannot convey what invoking a specific brand could - an Mp3 player is not the same thing as an iPod, plain and simple.

Make up fake brands. Joe's Pancake Plaza instead of IHOP, SyncTech Mp3 player instead of iPod, Vialaza instead of Louis Vuitton. If you write it correctly, the context says it all.  Sometimes this works, especially for restaurants and stores, but often the usage of a fake brand, or a generic name, does not have the punch that mentioning a product we are familiar with would.

I use a mix of all three methods in my writing, although as a general rule, I don't mention brand names if I can think of a way not to. Certain things, like an iPod, have become part of our daily lives, and I don't think a reader would be drawn from the story if I mentioned one. But name dropping with other things, like cars, seems unnecessary (although the description of several specific types of cars didn't distract me while reading THE TWILIGHT SAGA, it does bother me in my own writing).

The key is figuring out what connotation and emotional baggage a particular brand may carry and using it to your advantage.  And be sure you are not superflously shoving brands down your readers' throats - it gets old reading things like, "Georgette sauntered through the mall, wearing a Bebe top, Lucky jeans and Gucci boots, accessorized with a Fossil watch and a pair of Donna Karan aviator sunglasses holding back her bangs."


Of course, I'm sure there are legal concerns involved in using brand names in fiction, but I'll let my future publishing team cross that bridge when we get to it. :)

How do you feel about name brands in fiction?


Joseph Rooks said...

I think you're spot-on with all of this. A strong brand can be used to make a strong statement about something. It's a tactic that shouldn't be used lightly, and one that won't work with the vast majority of brands.

Abby Stevens said...

Thanks, Joe. I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I decide which brands to keep in my MS and which to scrap. Some mentions just feel so... gratuitous - that's the best way to describe it, I think. I don't want my MS to be one big product placement, but some mentions are inevitable and even beneficial.

Digital Kitsune said...

Some very good points on the use of brand names to convey additional character insight. I agree completely that figuring out the varying "connotation and emotional baggage" is very key as you might need to use other contextual details to focus your reader on the appropriate connotation. For example, you mention iPod; for most that might equate to "hip or trendy", but for others it equals "consumer whore". Or another example is the use of the word pop, Coke, or soda in the character speech could allow the reader to possibly infer a region of the US where that character grew up.

This article might be helpful on using brand names in fiction, http://www.publaw.com/fairusetrade.html.

Abby Stevens said...


Thank you! I will check that link out.

Context is also important in considering who the reader will be - in my case, I believe most young adults would read a young adult iPod owner as true-to-life, while I might have to add additional characterization to convince them that an adult iPod owner wasn't trying way too hard.

Either way, it's a lot to think about when using brands in fiction. I hadn't even thought of the Coke, pop, soda situation, which crosses over into characterization through dialogue, I think, but is also a very good point!

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