Handi Wipe® Brand Names from Your Writing

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:

  1. Avoid

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.)

  1. Generalize

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?”

  1. Imply

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.

  1. Invent

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?

27 Responses to Handi Wipe® Brand Names from Your Writing

  1. Avatar
    Tuvia Pollack August 14, 2019 at 3:31 am #

    There are very few brand names to speak of in historical fiction, so this is a problem that I’ve been able to dodge (so far).
    This reminded me, however, of the “omnictionary” in John Green’s book “Paper Towns” from 2008. An quite obvious reference to wikipedia without mentioning the brand’s actual name.

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    Brennan S. McPherson August 14, 2019 at 4:32 am #

    This reminds me of Ted Dekker’s repetitive use of Noxzema lotion in the book Boneman’s Daughters. Brand names stick out like a sore thumb. Good tips, Bob!

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    Lexi Revellian August 14, 2019 at 5:24 am #

    Not at all sure I’d agree with this. I like to be specific rather than generic, which gives a sharper picture to the reader. Also, rereading a novel I wrote ten years ago, so much has changed in that time that omitting a few brand names would make little or no difference. My heroine’s flat is in Hoxton in London, an area now so trendy she would not be able to afford it. Her view of the Gherkin is no more, with skyscrapers obliterating it. And no one has a smartphone.

    We still enjoy Jane Austen, however dated the details in her characters’ lives are.

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      Brennan S. McPherson August 14, 2019 at 6:25 am #

      Idk… I see what you’re saying… but most of the time I feel that using specific brand names comes off tacky, and sometimes reveals an inexperienced, lazy writer. I get a tiny bit annoyed when people think that saying a guy drives a BMW reveals anything about their actual personality. It really doesn’t. I know people who drive BMW’s who are stingy jerks. I also know people who drive BMW’s that are extremely kind and generous. It’s an artistic choice, and there’s time when you’d want to mention specific brand names (like a BMW), but in general, I think it pays to only be specific about what REALLY MATTERS to the reader, and what will universally result in the same conclusion (brand names aren’t that effective, in that way). Better than mentioning a BMW would be to mention his four-story mansion with marble pillars out front. Anyways, what really matters is, who are these people (on the inside, at their core, proven and shown through behavior, not setting details), what do they want, and how are they trying to get it?

      I greatly dislike some historical fiction because they get all specific about junk I have zero interest in, and have never heard of before. It’s like they’re trying to say, “See, I did research! See my research? It’s so complete that I included this thing you’ve never heard of! It doesn’t help me explain who this person is, what they want, or how they’re getting it, but don’t you like the setting details?”

      Also, Bob was answering a questioner who wanted to know how to avoid brand names.

      • Avatar
        Linda Riggs Mayfield August 14, 2019 at 7:57 am #

        Yikes, Brennan! The authentic historical details you greatly dislike in some historical fiction is exactly what I enjoy most, both as a reader and a writer, even if it means seeing and using trademarks. I’m never trying to draw attention to my depth of research when I am authentic in even small details. I think that level of attention to authenticity lends to the reader’s ability to suspend disbelief and trust the author’s creation of setting for the story. You must have hated Zane Gray, James A. Michener’s classic sagas, and more recently in Christian historical fiction, the Thoenes’ Zion Chronicles series and other best-sellers. I loved the attention to details in them all and enjoyed learning from them while I pursued the protagonists and plots. Different strokes…

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          Brennan S. McPherson August 14, 2019 at 10:34 am #

          Right, different strokes. But I do believe there’s a way to give great historical details without having them be functionally meaningless. It’s a pacing issue. I just get bored when the details bog down the story. I think a lot of historical fiction would find a broader audience if more focus was put on having the setting details pull more weight.

          It’s the same thing as what happens in literary fiction. My weakness is I like pretty sentences. But honestly, who cares about pretty sentences that don’t push the story forward? Very few people. Just us weirdo’s who like poetry readings. It’s the reason why some more literary fiction just never finds a broad audience.

          Hopefully that makes sense.

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    Scott Rutherford August 14, 2019 at 6:04 am #

    I write mostly period pieces and historical fiction, so I’m actually looking for the sorts of things that would be passe in most fiction. The trick in my case is to get it right and put the right fashion trends/brand names/etc. into the right time period and make sure I don’t have my characters eating at a restaurant or wearing an article of clothing that either (a) wouldn’t exist until 10 years after the story or (b) had already become passe by the time of the story.

    • Avatar
      Linda Riggs Mayfield August 14, 2019 at 7:39 am #

      Well, Scott, I just HAD to Reply–I have exactly the same experience, and the setting in my historical novel now in re-write is the imaginary community of RUTHERFORD, NY, just west of Palmyra, on the Erie Canal. I searched Google Earth to find a place that met all my criteria for the plot that has nothing there now and created the town with your name.

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    Ginny Graham August 14, 2019 at 6:10 am #

    To quote Bob Hostetler: “Your slang has the shelf life of milk”, I think the same could be applied to brands. (Bob, you’ve quoted twice in one day!)

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    Ginny Graham August 14, 2019 at 6:16 am #

    I should amend that statement to ‘some’ brands since I do use the old standbys–diet Coke and Kleenex.

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    Jetta August 14, 2019 at 6:32 am #

    My WIP is historical fiction for middle-grade readers. I use several product names in positive contexts.
    My quandary: authenticity vs lawsuits. Gulp. Your advice?

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser August 14, 2019 at 7:00 am #

    While shopping at Montgomery Ward
    my protagonist bought a Commodore;
    though ‘twas more than he could afford,
    playing Frogger was his soul-core.
    Borders books was his next stop,
    for his wife’s copy of Glamour,
    and, while there, chose to shop
    for a new cassette of MC Hammer.
    He wanted a case of Billy beer,
    so it’s on to the A&P,
    where he also got his wife Tab Clear
    and some Crystal Pepsi.
    He’s on the road again, and looking great,
    channeling Magnum in his red 308.

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    Tisha Martin August 14, 2019 at 7:34 am #

    Great post, Bob, but how does this apply to historical fiction?

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      Sarah Sundin August 14, 2019 at 8:34 am #

      Hi Tisha! That dating aspect of brand names is exactly what we want in historical fiction. However, as with so many other things, don’t overdo it – it needs to sound natural for your character (does she actually think she’s grabbing the Bon-Ami or that she’s grabbing the cleanser?), and we need to be careful that brands are clear in context (she sprinkled Bon-Ami into the sink and scrubbed away).

      • Avatar
        Tisha Martin August 14, 2019 at 9:32 am #

        Thanks so much for the examples, Sarah! Helpful.

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        Ramona Richards August 14, 2019 at 1:15 pm #

        Sarah, I love this example, because some brands become the name of the item itself and cane help place a character in time and place. In the South, for example, “the Fridgeadaire” was a universal name of a refrigerator, probably until the 70s or 80s (see Steel Magnolias for an example), while other items are independent of the brand. That’s a lovely part of research. (Borateem also comes to mind.)

        As to my own house, cleansers are just cleaners (“Hand me that toilet wand and a new swabby) except for Barkeeper’s Friend. I actually think of it by its name and usage.

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    Melony Teague August 14, 2019 at 7:57 am #

    So what do we use instead of Kleenex then? “Facial tissue” sounds weird. Any ideas? This is when a character is crying and someone offers a Kleenex. Handkerchiefs are probably old fashioned in a contemporary setting.

    What to do?

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      Colleen K Snyder August 14, 2019 at 8:12 am #

      Not sure, but think that “tissue” implies the same thing without being brand specific. Or body part specific.

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    Colleen K Snyder August 14, 2019 at 8:16 am #

    Authors have the same issue with slang dating us. “MIckie Dees” is problematic. I found that “jeep” is okay, so long as it refers to a non-specific vehicle type. (Which, by definition, they all were in the beginning, hence the “General Purpose” vehicle designation which became GP which became jeep…) It’s all confusing and sticky. Cola rather than Coke… soda or pop. But those two are non-interchangeable depending on the part of the country you’re from.

    Remember when writing was fun???

    • Avatar
      Linda Riggs Mayfield August 14, 2019 at 8:40 am #

      Colleen, Your “non-interchangeable” observation brought a smile. Where I grew up in Ohio, we drank “pop.” We ordered “a coke,” even if the restaurant served Pepsi products, and “7Up” even if it served Coke products, and waitresses didn’t ask us if the other brand was alright–they just brought our drinks. When I began visiting my future husband’s family in Western Illinois, I had to learn new terms: anything that looked like 7Up was “white soda,” and “soda” was pronounced “sodey.” A few years later my father-in-law later ordered “white sodey” in a restaurant we visited together in Michigan, and the waitress needed an interpreter. I’ve lived in Western Illinois 20+ years, now, and have observed that “white sodey” is still occasionally used by the older generations, and “soda” is commonly used by everyone (except me). I think using the accurate local vernacular names for products can help a writer establish the authenticity of settings, and I enjoy that attention to details, both as a reader and a writer.

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    Nancy B. Kennedy August 14, 2019 at 9:54 am #

    I once had an editor on the copy desk change my use of the trademarked word Frisbee to “round, flat flying disk.” Doesn’t that just roll right off the tongue?!?

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    Maco Stewart August 14, 2019 at 10:18 am #

    Bob, I see the two problems you point out: appearing prematurely dated and legal issues. As many above have said, those balance with maintaining an uninterrupted believable narrative flow, where circumlocutions may cause the reader to stumble. Thank you for grappling with this highly nuanced issue, but it seems to me that there is an undefinable sweet spot where some use of brand names is constructive.

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    Bonnie Ebsen Jackson August 14, 2019 at 2:12 pm #

    I managed to avoid using brand names throughout my novel, preferring to invent similar names as needed or use a generic description. For example, Artsy instead of Etsy and “online payment service” instead of PayPal. One glaring exception: The protagonist takes a visitor from the East Coast to lunch at an In-and-Out burger franchise. Now I’ll probably have to change the name or revise the dialogue in which they talk about the franchise not existing east of Colorado, as this is something that will surely change with time.

  15. Avatar
    claire o;sullivan August 14, 2019 at 2:14 pm #

    hahahahahaha

    fine! I took out Tylenol and put in acetaminophen, however I used Google AND Yahoo!

    pfft. Okay easy enough… but pfft. I can add his favorite search engine and her favorite search engine. One of her statements is ‘Google it.’

    thanks, Bob. thanks a lot. pfft.

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    Robin E. Mason August 14, 2019 at 6:13 pm #

    Tricky topic. I do like to use specifics, like car models, but not for status; simply for specifics and detail. I vaguely remember using Roller Blades in a story, until i learned that is a brand name and not *what* they are. i made that adjustment.
    In my current WIP, it is currently 2008 and i *allll-most* made reference to Pinterest – til i checked and discovered Pinterest wasn’t around yet! same story, i invented an online dating site. also current story, one of the characters drives a vintage VW beetle.
    Unless i’m using landmark locations, i invent / create my own.

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    Morgan Tarpley Smith August 19, 2019 at 6:36 am #

    Thanks for the insight! I’ve been thinking about this exact issue and wasn’t sure what to do. My first thought though was to allude to the brand without saying its name as you mentioned above.

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