Using A Brand In Your Stories Can Be Touchy

uabysStephen King does it. Jay McInerney does it. Raymond Carver didn’t do it. Jane Austen did it, but not often. Judith Krantz can’t stop doing it. William Gibson does it, but with a twist. Mary McCarthy did it, but not as much as you’d expect. Jean Auel never does it, but only because it would be impossible. Judy Blume does it a lot.

“It” is the use of brand names from the author’s contemporary world, incorporated into the world of his or her fiction. By “brand name” I mean the mention of a specific product rather than a more generic version of the same thing: Corn Flakes rather than cereal (Stephen King), Maxwell House rather than coffee (Mary McCarthy), a Mary McFadden rather than a designer dress (Judith Krantz). I also mean the mention of specific song titles, books, TV programs or movies drawn from the pop culture of the author’s “real” world: Lawrence Welk (King again), The Mysteries of Udolpho (Jane Austen), “You Are My Lucky Star” and Return of Frankenstein (both used by Judy Blume).

But, you might say, isn’t that natural? If the protagonist is eating breakfast, why not say he’s eating Corn Flakes? Isn’t it always better to be specific and concrete than general and vague? Doesn’t Chivas Regal convey more than scotch?

Or perhaps you’re on the other side. No, you might say, brand names are an intrusion. They’re distracting and lazy and too easily dated. Throughout America, creative writing teachers are saying just that, this very minute, to students who have peppered their prose with Dior or The Brady Bunch.

Granted, this is not the most burning issue you will encounter in writing fiction. But if, as someone once remarked, God is in the details, then the detail of brand names warrants our attention. Let’s examine the arguments on both sides.

Three Objections

* The use of brand names will date your work. You’re writing prose to last, goes this argument, and 50 years from now, will readers recognize Jolt? Or Ferragamo? Or “Like a Virgin”? And even if they can deduce from context which of these is sung, which drunk, and which worn, they’ll still miss the nuances you intend. Future readers won’t automatically know that Ferragamo shoes are expensive and classy, while Madonna is expensive and not. Your work may not only become dated, but partly unintelligible.

However, there’s a persuasive counter to this argument, which is that all fiction becomes dated anyway in far more important essentials than brand names, and that this does not mar its impact. Consider, as an example, Jane Austen.

In one sense, the world of Northanger Abbey is obsolete: Social rules are different, moral judgments have changed. For instance, nobody today would find it shameful that Gen. Tilney does not send a servant to accompany Catherine Morland on her journey home. Even language has altered: “She is all condescension” was a compliment in Austen’s world, in which class superiority was a given; the phrase is an insult now (“She always condescends to me!”).

Yet Northanger Abbey remains not only enjoyable but relevant, for its sharp portraits of those human foibles that may change form but not substance. If an entire social milieu can change without hopelessly dating the novel, then the novel can survive the fact that, unlike Catherine, nobody reads Udolpko anymore. Readers who don’t know exactly what Udolpho signifies won’t find like reference any more dated than the rest of Catherine’s world–or any less interesting. In fact, the unknown specific reference may even heighten the sense of entering a different world.

Also, contemporary brand names may not end up as dated as you think. We still recognize Packard, Edsel, Buster Brown and the Glenn Miller sound, even though none of these things is currently being produced. Similarly, Levi’s, Apple and Doritos may well remain in the language, if not in the marketplace, longer than we assume.

Recognizable brand names can even be used in books dealing with the future instead of the past. Science fiction writer William Gibson makes extensive and wry use of specific brands. By letting us know which names have survived into his imagined future, he comments slyly on the economics of the present. For instance, Braun coffee makers, well made and efficient in our world, are ubiquitous in Gibson’s future. Conversely, most of the advanced computer systems in his future United States are Japanese, such as the “workaday Ono-Sendai VII” in the short story “Burning Chrome.” Brand names add an additional level of implied social history.

* The use of brand names flips your reader out of the would you’ve created, by too strongly reminding her of this world. This argument has merit, especially when you evoke pop culture close to the genre in which you’re writing. An amateur detective who exclaims, “This whole situation reminds me of Agatha Christie!” is only going to invite comparisons. Do you really want your universe compared with Agatha Christie’s? And no romance writer should have her heroine feel “just like Juliet.” Your heroine should feel like herself.

Even a milder use of brand names does indeed evoke our world, not the world of the story. But this is only a drawback if the two are supposed to be very different from each other. If your novel takes place in New York City in 1996, then mentioning the products common to 1996, it seems to me, can only reinforce that illusion. You would mention 5th Avenue and the Battery naturally enough–so why not Betsy Johnson, Steuben, Zabar? Some readers, unfamiliar with the brands, may indeed miss their subtler implications–but such readers would know no less than if you’d simply written dress, vase or bagel.

A word of caution here: To be effective, the use of brand names must be reasonably sparing. Context will not make the following understandable, and the evoking of our world can’t make the paragraph more real:

Jane put on her Adidas, an old Jessie Hart, the Max Lang that Charles had given her, and her mother’s Victorian ring. There! That mix should show everyone! All those people who sneered at her as just a Donna Stillson wannabe … now they’d see! Tonight she was a different Jane. She patted her Leasting Super and left, humming “Once Again, Slowly.”

Huh? Put on her Jessie Hart what? What had Charles given her–a hat a diamond bracelet, a T-shirt or a mannerism? Is Donna Stillson someone ifs good to be an imitator of–or not good? What on Earth is a Leasting Super? And is “Once Again, Slowly” a sweet sad ballad or the most cynical of nihilistic heavy metal? The brand names here are worse than generic nouns would be, both because they’re obscure and because they’re used to supplant, not supplement, generic concepts. To make brand names add to your world, choose and use them with common sense.

Brand names are a lazy way to evoke reality. Fresh descriptions of your own will mean more than prepackaged commercial trademarks. This, to my mind, is the most persuasive argument against using brand names in fiction. If you are relying only on names like Kmart and Budweiser to give your story a working-class feel, your fiction is probably failing. Brand names can contribute to a sense of class. But they cannot replace the hard work of showing us authentic blue-collar people thinking, talking and behaving like blue-collar people, Brand names should be one strand in the tapestry you’re weaving; they cannot be woof and warp.

On the other hand, it’s naive to pretend that only brand names carry this threat of hasty and too-easy symbolism. All words are symbols. Thus, all words have both concrete meaning (denotative) and implied symbolic meaning within a given culture (connotative). Consider the words mother, flag and heroin. You can’t use them without implying a whole raft of unstated cultural beliefs. That does not, however, mean that you shouldn’t use such words. Nor does it mean that merely announcing that someone is a “mother of three” does the whole job of characterizing her. Ideally, when you use a word like mother (or cross or virgin) you’re aware of what resonances you may be setting up in the reader’s mind, and you build on those to create the effect you want.

Brand names are no different. Saying a man wears Armani suits will not, all by itself, create a character of wealth and sophistication. But the brand name may be used as one small detail contributing to that effect. Used that way, the brand name is no lazier or more stale than any other carefully chosen detail.

One Defense

Brand names, as I’ve just spent two paragraphs leading up to, are essentially metaphors. As such, they have the same potential power–and the same limitations–as other metaphors. The potential lies in their power to imply more than the direct visual image offered to us. Consider the following sentences, from widely differing works:

“Sally, the receptionist. .. from one of the outer boroughs, comes in via bridge or tunnel. Generally people here speak as if they were weaned on Twinings English Breakfast Tea.”

Jay McInerney, Bright Lights, Big City

“The contents of B.B.’s purse spilled out, a bottle of Opium breaking at Margo’s feet, lipsticks rolling under cars, a hairbrush, a notebook.”

Judy Blume, Smart Women

“And in an upstairs cupboard [the killers] found a Skippy peanut butter jar half filled with dimes, and they took those, too. There was $20.60 in dimes.”

Stephen King, The Stand

Clearly, more is being implied in these excerpts than what the rest of the office workers (except Sally) drink for breakfast, or that B.B. carries perfume or that a Skippy jar is a good place to keep dimes. The Twinings English Breakfast Tea becomes a metaphor for class background and, by extension, the accents of people other than Sally. Opium, an expensive and heavy perfume, is a metaphor for B.B.’s kind of femininity. And it’s a good bet that B.B. doesn’t keep her spare dimes in anything as pedestrian and homey as a Skippy peanut butter jar.

Like other metaphors, brand names can be cliche, inappropriate, intrusive or obscure. But we don’t avoid other kinds of metaphors because of these pitfalls. Rather, we search for figurative language that is fresh, appropriate and in keeping with the tone of the work as a whole. We should do the same with brand names.

For better or worse, we live surrounded by commercial products. They infiltrate our thoughts, absorb our money and time, become the means by which we express ourselves. To ban them from fiction is tantamount to banning a large piece of the contemporary world. And if your object is to re-create the contemporary world so you can illuminate it, then why would you wish to exclude such a major part of what surrounds us? Your characters choose to buy the brands they do, and choices are always illuminating.

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