A few months ago, I wrote a blog post in this space titled “Details Are Great—Except When They’re Not.” In that post, I said, “Sometimes details can be lethal to an article, story, or book.” (I quote myself occasionally because if I don’t do it, who will?) Soon, someone emailed or messaged me asking, “Specifically, how do I avoid mentioning brand names without sacrificing accuracy or authenticity?”
If I knew, don’t you think I would have shared that information in that post?
Okay, okay. I may have a few suggestions. But let me say first that it is sometimes a sacrifice—or, more accurately, a trade-off. Sometimes, in an era when people Google something instead of “search the web,” writers sometimes do have to trade authenticity or resonance in the short run for a longer lifespan for what they’ve written. As I said in that post, “Incorporating trends and product names into your writing could quickly date your scenes. Everyone may be playing Fortnite this year; but by the time your book, story, or article comes out, that reference may be as dated as if they were on MySpace. (Ask your grandma; she’ll tell you about MySpace.)”
So, since my questioner asked specifically about how to avoid using brand names, such as Google® and Kleenex® (which, by the way, could even pose a legal problem if a registered trademark is used in an inaccurate or unflattering way), let me suggest four ways to do so:
Sometimes the use of a brand name is a shortcut. So, say, you have your protagonist drive a Tesla Model S to depict extravagance. But are you sure that the company—or the model—will still be around in a couple years when your book is released? So what do you do? You avoid the issue. You have a character reflect or comment on the unnamed car’s price tag or performance or the length of the waiting list to get it. (There is a similar dynamic, by the way, in money references, illustrated comically by Dr. Evil in the movie Austin Powers, demanding “one million dollars” to cancel worldwide destruction. Detailing your character’s salary, inheritance, grocery bill, or 37-inch-big-screen-TV’s purchase price can quickly become as dated as an Austin Powers reference.)
Instead of having your character sign into Instagram, mention that she “posted a photo online.” Or replace an invitation to Chi-Chi’s (see what I mean?) with a character asking, “How about Mexican?”
In some cases, you can imply a brand without specifying it. Having someone say, “I saw your post the other night,” suggests Facebook without mentioning it. Or you may depict your character as being unimpressed by “the polo player symbol on his shirt,” a reference to the Ralph Lauren brand.
Finally, keep in mind that you’re a writer, and writers get to make up stuff. It’s kind of our stock-in-trade. So why not make up your own brand names that convey what a trademarked term would? Maybe your teen protagonist uses Chatter, the social-media platform all the cool kids use. Or the detective in your cozy mystery drinks only Berwick Tea. When you invent the brand names in your story, you don’t have to worry about them becoming outdated or passé.
Have you encountered this challenge in your writing? How have you handled it?