So, you’re driving down the road, and you see a Ford F-350 with Monster wheels and an NRA bumper sticker. And you see a Toyota Prius with a Go Green bumper sticker. You know these are two different personalities driving the vehicles, right? You probably have formed an image already. I would guess you even think the driver of the truck is a male and the Toyota is a female. Or you might see a middle-aged woman emerge from a Mercedes-Benz decked out in designer apparel and nearby, a teenager emerge from a Ford Mustang wearing fast fashion. As an observer, you form images of these people and how they live, correct?
So it stands to reason that this is a great and quick way to convey impressions of your characters to readers of your contemporary novel, right?
I’ll admit, to say, “Wrong,” is draconian. However, there are good reasons to avoid using name brands in books even though observing what people buy in real life is one way we assess them, whether we admit it or not.
But here are a couple of reasons why this isn’t such a great idea when writing a book:
1.) Your readers may not know the brands as well as you do.
I am the daughter of a man whose nickname in high school was “Speed” (because he drove fast) and he was proud of it. I also love cars, although I try not to exceed the speed limit. I have been told that “Da-da” and “ca-ca” were my first utterances. In that order. So I keep up with cars, especially my favorite brands. But that doesn’t mean all readers do. Many of my friends say, “All I care about is that my car gets me from Point A to Point B.” But these friends of mine have other redeeming qualities.
The point is, your reader may not understand or care about this brand reference that is so important to you. Why spend your valuable writing time on a reference that may be lost to a large portion of your readers?
2.) Some of your readers may absolutely hate the brand you love.
Yes, it’s true. Not everyone likes Ford Mustangs. I know, that’s awful, right? Like, who doesn’t absolutely adore Mustangs? Well, maybe the reader whose ex-boyfriend drove one. You never know. And now your heroine is driving one. So your reader is now remembering that terrible breakup…Annnnd that may be enough to make her put your book down. Right. Now.
3.) One day soon, name brands will make your novel seem quaint.
This has always been true, but it is even more true today because tastes change faster than ever. Granted, there will always be the edgy contemporary novel that is deliberately trendy. And there is the novel that is all about designer brands. But that’s not the norm in CBA.
Generally speaking, if you want your work to be read more than six months from now, or if you are going the traditional publishing route, you want to be on trend but not ridiculously so.
4.) Using name brands to teach a lesson can backfire.
You may be trying to make a character unlikable to make a statement about snobbishness and/or stewardship and, in doing so, deck her out in designer duds. Perhaps this is a minor character you don’t think anyone will care about. However, by using this character as a straw woman to take the hit and to be a Sunday school lesson, you may be turning off readers.
What if the reader herself wears the designer duds you so despise? Or what if this “terrible” character is just like the reader’s beloved aunt? You may inadvertently turn off a reader by this form of preaching. Readers will easily see that they are being criticized and they won’t like it — or your book. So tread carefully here if you choose to tread at all.
5) Legal pitfalls
Before you use a trademarked brand name in your fiction use a little legal caution. There are things like “defamation” and “infringement” that can be troublesome. Simply refrain from saying that particular car brand is the “worst car ever made.” There are some excellent articles online to help if you are concerned:
Rights of Writers
Trademarks in The Fault in Our Stars
Daily Writing Tips
Are brand names absolutely forbidden in contemporary fiction? Of course not. Not when it makes sense to use them. But if a silver sedan for one reader is a Mercedes-Benz S class and for another, a Lincoln MKS and for another a Kia Optima, then let the reader enjoy the ride.
What other reasons can you give for not using name brands?
Can you think of reasons when using name brands are effective?