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?
Amy Boucher Pye
Another reason not to use them – brand names don’t always translate globally.
Wow, I never considered using brand names could be a problem.
I’ve always enjoyed picking out my character’s vehicles more than picking out their clothes. Not sure why, but it sounds like I need to be generic. SUV, car, truck. Got it.
What about setting? If you don’t write anything negative about a local store or restaurant, can you include it in your story?
What I meant to say was I’m not sure why I focus more on vehicles than clothes.
Jackie, I’m the same way with cars. Each main character in my upcoming contemporary has a specific vehicle. For one in particular, his Jeep Cherokee seems part of who he is–just like the Ohio State ball cap he’s always wearing. (Actually he has several.)
Tamela, thanks for the advice and the links. They were very helpful.
My protagonist drives a Jeep too.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Jackie, most of the time, local people are thrilled that their town is part of a book. I wrote LOVE FINDS YOU IN MAIDEN, NORTH CAROLINA, some years ago, and the mayor asked me for a signed copy to place in their museum.
If you do bring a town to life in such a way, I definitely recommend visiting the town and touching base with the local people. Make them part of the excitement!
Thanks for posting this. And your link should read ‘The Fault in Our Stars.’
huh, never really thought about most of those things, but I will now! But number 1 I totally get. My teenage boys, especially the older one, hits me with words of products and games and technical teenager lingo, that I am apparently supposed to recognize. They speed through their sentences glossing over all of the unrecognizables, making my head spin. I then have to back them up and decode what they were trying to get across to me. By the end of the conversation, they are exasperated with my lack of knowledge and simply give up trying to educate me. The “dumb-ed down” lingo and the looks on their faces are priceless. Is this unintentional on my part? – I think not! :))))
Great points about brands. I love driving my Toyota Corolla stick-shift that gets 40-43 mpg mixed city/mountain highway with the summer gas mix. It can make a U-turn in a residential street. I also like the Ford F250 4×4 8-ft bed extended cab pickup that I have to park at the outer reaches of the parking lot where I can pull through and take 1 ¼ parking spots. If something long parks across the lane behind me, the turning radius is so long I might not be able to back it out. What does that say about me, other than I like manual transmissions?
The international market encourages me to avoid being too brand-specific if I weren’t writing historical romance. The crisis faced by several of my lead characters when they love a nonbeliever translates perfectly into contemporary Japan, where young women who convert are warned they may never be able to find a Christian man to marry. A similar difficulty exists in secularized Europe. I read recently that untranslated American romance sells well in both locations, so I plan to explore those markets.
I only use brand names when a product is iconic – for example, the heroine’s son in “Blessed Are The Pure Of Heart” is restoring an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It’s certainly not the only choice I could have made – the motorcycle mavens would probably have him working on an Indian – but ‘Harley” speaks to the broader audience, and sets an image that has gained currency, and will continue, I think, to retain it. Spam is in the same category.
Rival brands – say, Coke and Pepsi – can be used to highlight differences between characters. Works if it’s not overdone, or overemphasized.
This actually came up in a comment I wrote for the Books and Such post today – I referenced Prokofiev’s First Piano Concerto as immediately putting me in mind of the Eero Saarinen-designed TWA terminal at JFK airport…and then realized that TWA has been gone foe more than a decade.
Tamela Hancock Murray
Andrew, that’s a good call on the motorcycle. I hadn’t heard of Indian until seeing a few episodes of American Pickers, but I live within a few miles of a Harley dealership.
I’d never heard of Indians until I saw The World’s Fastest Indian (starring Anthony Hopkins, a movie that’s well worth watching). But even now, I’d recognise a Harley on the street but not an Indian.
This is an interesting subject. I’ve read some books where the author keeps referring to “tablet computer” or “expensive designer purse”, and I was reading and thinking, “just say iPad and tell us whether it’s Prada, Khardisians (sp?) or something she bought on sale at TJ Maxx!”, because that would tell me specific something about the character.
But I’ve recently read a novel set approximately 20 years in the future, and it bugged me that she was still using an iPad.
An excellent educational post for me and sounds like many others. Always enjoy the comments but I’m a little shy of participating because everyone sounds brilliant!!!
Have a great day.
Tamela, I hadn’t considered some of what you mentioned, especially about readers maybe not liking a brand I might choose to mention in my books. Like Jackie, I tend to think long and hard about the vehicles my protagonists drive. I guess I can ease off on that a bit. 🙂
I read or heard somewhere recently that there can be serious issues with using brand names in our writing. I’m thinking of a story I heard about Taylor Swift who—knowingly or not—has a company trying to sue her for using their name. I’m not sure on the entire story, but it’s a good reminder to be very careful how we approach mentioning brands in our writing.
Since you mentioned letting the readers use their imagination regarding car types, I thought I’d throw this in.
There has been a tendency of late among writers to post pictures of actors they envision as representative of their characters on Pinterest…and I think it’s a terrible idea.
You read a book, and one of the great joys in a ‘living’ character is learning that character’s voice and texture as the story progresses. To see and hear another face and voice kills that stone dead for me.
When I wrote BPH, I initially had an actor and actress in mind as representative of the male and female leads, but as the story developed (quite differently from the storyboard…yes, I do storyboards) those images were let go, and the characters became, well, themselves.
With every subsequent book, I’ve let the characters speak for themselves from the beginning; I add minimalist description, but there are no flowing tresses or rippling muscles among my people. Their hair may be short, or long and wavy, and I might essay ‘auburn’…and a physique may be slender, or stocky. Eyes are blue, perhaps, but never the color of the sea, and NEVER the green of my wife’s Camaro.
I try to may imagination a gift to the reader.
Last line…”I try to may…”
Take the writer out and FLOG him.
I would never post a picture of a real human as representative of one of my characters, but I have found images of Victor Mature helpful as I describe the initial response of a young woman to a wonderful man who was, shall we say, less than handsome even before his accident.
I’ve never seen a rippling muscle. Bulging, flexing, stretching, but not rippling. The only thing I’ve seen rippling is a horse’s hide as it shakes off a fly. That’s not what I’d want to see my hero do.
Not even if your hero’s Black Beauty?
As a beginning writer way back when, I was told to Never use TV programs, actual places, songs, etc. (mostly because legal issues could arise). In today’s world I see a lot of this going on (by a lot of different authors). However, there is a #1 author that did use a TV program (it shocked me so much I stopped at once and thought about it – I will NOT stop reading the author) and it happened to be a program I had seen years ago for 10 min–that was all I could take of it. This will definitely date the book and may not make sense in a few years. My experience. Janet
Thanks for a great post.
In the last issue of WRITERS DIGEST there was an article in which the author advocated using less specific detail – particularly in the setting – so the reader would fill in the details from their own memory bank and become more emotionally invested in the story.
Maybe another reason to keep the descriptions more generic, with specific telling details, but no trade names?
Thanks for the post.
Excellent points (also some very good points in the comments here).
Made me think.
My books are aimed at gamers (teen boys — though a lot of girls read them too). So, I hope I’m using the game and tech references well (and yes I do stay away saying anything bad or even showing too much preference to one tech company — while still reflecting the bias geeks naturally have for certain toys).
I did have an Audi A8 in the last book — but I needed a car that would a. be driven by a game development tycoon and b. would eventually be driven at a chain link gate (to ram it). For me, it seemed worth identifying in advance the car was capable of this feat.
I appreciate your attention to tech details when it comes to ramming a fence. If you had an oil tycoon or cattle baron or even a tech tycoon living in TX or NM, you’d want a 4×4 turbo diesel crew cab pickup with a ranch bumper. Maybe just extended cab for the tech tycoon. Diving one of those is almost like driving a tank. They give even us petite ladies a commanding presence and a great view of the road. You might stir up a rat’s nest if you said it was an F250 or Silverado 3500. Some folks are way past passionate about the brand of truck that is best.
In her memoir, a friend mentioned brand names, businesses, TV shows and such to establish the time frame and wax nostalgic about the past. Her publisher insisted she get a signed release for each reference — or remove them from the book.
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I do feel that using a specific brand of car could help create a sense of oddity. For example, the out-of-towner driving a Prius in the heart of American-built pickups in rural Texas. Of course, you could simply say ‘hybrid’ or ‘electric’ car. From the other point of view, I’ve read many a women’s lit filled with clothing brands that I have no clue of based on my own t-shirt and jeans wardrobe. I suppose the lesson here, is know your audience and ask yourself whether the specific is necessary.
Great thoughts and wonderful resources. Thanks!
I am in a non-fiction/journalism writing class for seniors at a local college and we were discussing copywrite issues. May I make copies of this to share with the six or seven students in the class?
I’m feeling torn about a brand name reference in my novel because it has a negative association.
My protagonist’s wife is in a nursing home and the dessert offered at almost every meal is some sort of congealed salad, what we would commonly call Jell-O salad, and he is sick to death of looking at it.
I’m wondering if I can just call it “jello” because the name has become synonymous with all gelatin products, like Kleenex or Pergo are now used to describe all tissues or laminate floor coverings.
Tamela Hancock Murray
“Congealed salad” works and is safe.
Great post Tamela. While I often wondered what’s good to go and what’s not, I didn’t really stop to think about the legalities that go into this. However, the one that baffles me the most is Ketchup. It is a trademarked brand (right?), so what do you call it when someone wants to add this ingredient to their hot dog? 😀