shaken & stirred

welcome to my martini glass


keep your brand outta my fiction*

Ed has a fantastic and absolutely spot on post about one of my least favorite things in writing: product placement, brand names, etc. (Some of you are nodding into your coffee, I bet, having gotten notes on this from me in the past.) He uses Tricia Sullivan's Maul as a jumping off point. I haven't read it, but have heard good things. (Here's a link to a Guardian review by kick-ass hard science fiction writer Justina Robson, whose book Natural History is out now and her first to be pubbed in America. Read it.)

Last year there was a lengthy thread in response to one of Carrie's posts that became partly about the use of brands in fiction, when it works and when it doesn't and the danger of dating your prose**.

Like anything, there are times when it works and is appropriate and times when it rips me from the story. Mostly, I find it to be a lazy sort of shorthand, particularly for character and setting. I think maybe the reason it's jarring is that consumer culture is so present in the rest of life that I resent its intrusion into fiction. I want to at least preserve the illusion that whatever I'm reading is tapping into levels below that shiny surface.

Again, this isn't to say it can't work. I don't find if nearly as upsetting when a name or discussion of a film or book is inserted, as a rule, but spare me from details on toothpaste brand or what kind of white wine it is. In general, I can do a more resonant job of filling in my own details there based on more generic (or specific in their own way) identifiers.

Some books*** -- many of them science fiction -- need to take on consumer culture and all it entails, including brands. Whenever I bitch about this, Christopher points out that William Gibson has done it with great success. But I, now at this moment, mostly prefer made up brands if they are necessary to the story. Real ones have all sorts of baggage and perhaps that's the problem -- the associations the reader brings are from life experience and so heavy that they intrude on our unfolding experience of the narrative. They feel easy and manipulative. A lesson in how one word (one capped, TMed word) can color, shade, tilt a story off kilter for a reader. Writer beware.

*Overstating, of course...

**As in temporal, not smoochy, smoochy.

***Recommendation along these lines: MT Anderson's Feed and Scott Westerfeld's So Yesterday

worm "Carry Me Ohio" Sun Kil Moon

UPDATE: There's an interesting discussion going on in the comments. Join in.


  • At 5:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I read an article once that proposed that one of the reasons why the Harry Potter books were so loved by kids (more so than other comparable fantasy/adventure books) is Rowling's use of brand names (albeit made-up ones), so it's not just a broom that they're ogling in the window, it's the WhateverItIs 3000, and not generic candy, but the Bertie Whoever Jelly Beans. It created it's own product placements, and kids expect that and identify with that, just giving them one more reason to identify with the characters.

    Bret Easton Ellis always did a great job with product placement, but his books are just as much about the trappings as they are about the people. Or how the trappings give the people their personality. Or something. It's Saturday.


  • At 6:17 PM , Blogger Janni said...

    I think it depends not only the setting, but also on the product. There's a different between saying "she reached for the Crest toothpaste" (which would probably throw me out of a story) and "she reached for the Oreos" (which are, in their way, iconic).

    In at least one story I needed Oreos, actually, and saying "cream filled chocolate cookies" wouldn't have been the same thing.

    Interestingly, now that I think about it, I think it would be harder to avoid product names in my contemporary kid stories than my contemporary adult ones. Which I suppose says something about the nature of kid and adult culture.

  • At 8:24 PM , Blogger gwenda said...

    Well, I definitely think you're both right that when it works it works well and there's no good substitute. Mostly, I'm complaining about it in uses where it isn't necessary, or where it's far less useful than Oreos (I agree, there is no good substitute there).

  • At 11:27 PM , Blogger Janni said...

    I do think if one is using a product name just to kind of seem cool and hip then, yeah, more often than not it's not going to work.

    And even if it works now, in five years your book will seem awfully dated.

  • At 12:57 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I think name-dropping falls into dodgy country, somewhere between "specific is terrific!" and "first, do no harm." Sometimes, and Oreo can only be an Oreo, and what would High Fidelity have been without the specific band names, songs, and albums? But so much rarely depends on knowing what brand of running shoes your protagonist wears, and I agree that many times an author appears to be taking shortcuts by referencing trademarks instead of jumping elbow-deep into character development.


  • At 5:43 AM , Blogger Clint said...

    I tend to think that brand names are an intrinsic part of today's language, and that if you're going to write something that captures the world of today, the world we all live in, you have to use the brands. There's really no getting around it. To ignore that is to deny the essence of modern reality, as sad as that may be.

    And this, perhaps, is why I use them. I use them to emphasize that sadness, that crutch we all depend on in our day to day lives.


  • At 10:06 AM , Blogger gwenda said...

    Right on, Eek and Janni.

    And Clint, you're kind of a special case, in at least the work of yours I'm most familiar with is ABOUT consumer culture in a lot of ways (and I don't necessarily remember it being loaded brimful with brand names).

    I can't buy the fiction needs brands to reflect reality thing though. I really do believe that in many or most cases they become a lazy shorthand because of our overfamiliarity with them and just distract the reader. Doesn't Fight Club manage it without ever actually naming Ikea? Wouldn't it have been less somehow if the name Ikea was thrown around willy nilly?

    And Scott's book that I referenced above is about a cool hunter battling renegades trying to undo consumer culture and one of the best things about it is the way he cleverly avoids using the _actual names_ of any of the brands.

    I dunno. Mileage is going to vary.

  • At 2:25 PM , Blogger David Moles said...

    Scott doesn’t just cleverly avoid them; his protagonist is hilariously in-your-face about refusing to explicitly name them. And yet he’s very clearly evoking a certain time, place, and set of brands.

    In some way that I can’t quite articulate, this seems really similar to some of the discussion of sex scenes over at Making Light a few weeks back.

  • At 6:17 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

    I just finished "Autograph Man" by Zadie Smith, and she has some weird tics like: a very popular square, framed on every side by giant cinemas...Why not just say Leicester Square (has to be, given contextual geography, near Chinatown)? It's a little too precious, being that coy.

    But then celebrities are name-dropped constantly (have to, the story's about an autograph dealer) and Lenny Bruce's biography is shamelessly cribbed from.

    (good book, though)


  • At 6:25 PM , Blogger gwenda said...

    Actually, my tic is reserved almost exclusively for brand name stuff; places, people don't set it off much. ALthough it is annoying when the detail is slightly wrong (for instance, Ed's example of a band that would actually be slightly out of date as a hipness signifier for the time in the book).

    I can't imagine what the point of not just saying Leicester Square would be there. I can come up with a few, but none that would match what I understand Autograph Man is. Huh. Weird.


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