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    Pet Peeves: Brand Names

    Regina Harvey Icon

    Brand names bug me. Nothing screams out of date like a brand name come upon decades later. It’s a cheap ploy to set up a situation as ritzy by naming the cars the valet is parking, the type of champagne drunk and the store at which the protag. bought his wristwatch. It’s lazy to let me know someone’s seedy in just the same way, changing the brand names.

    We are writers. We can write description without tempting the reader to ask, “Are they paying her for product placement or what?”

    As previously posted on the DorothyL listserv, ages ago, I think details matter in writing. Not just for developing setting, but for developing character. And, even if it’s cheap, I can use a good brand name now and then. But please people, make it really matter.

    My rule of thumb about brand names is:
    If it’s there for a reason - to truly tell us something about the character
    or to help as an identifier if it is, say, a clue or something - then fine.
    Otherwise leave it out.

    For example,
    Saying a guy reeked of Old Spice tells me something about the guy.
    Calling a sports car a Ferrari is okay if it helps us know which sports car
    is which, or other relevant plot info.
    Saying, “I pulled my Previa mini-van into the driveway,” or “I pulled my
    Camry into the parking space” doesn’t add anything more (IMO) than, “I
    pulled my mini-van into the driveway,” or “I pulled my car into the parking
    space.” or simply, “I parked.”

    This is one of my biggest pet peeves. I think it only adds texture if it
    actually adds texture, if you know what I mean. Again, examples:
    If a young, trim guy eats All-Bran after coming back from his jog, it tells
    me something (adds texture).
    If a mom absentmindedly eats the Cheerios off her baby’s high chair while
    she’s talking on the phone, it tells me something (adds texture).
    If a forty-year old man eats Captain Crunch with extra sugar poured on, in
    his boxers with an infomercial playing in the background at three in the
    morning, that tells me something (adds texture).
    If someone is eating Oatmeal Raisin Crisp or Honey Bunches of Oats at the
    table, reading the newspaper? Well, that doesn’t mean too much to me.

    How about you? Meaningful brand names? When does it work?

    23 Responses to “Pet Peeves: Brand Names”

    1. Hi Regina

      Loved the post, and it’s an interesting point you raise, but I think it depends entirely on how it’s handled, as with anything in writing.

      Personally, I *want* to know what make of handgun someone’s firing, car they’re driving, or helicopter they’re flying in. Yes, blatant product placement is crass, but leaving out all the details carries the danger of making the reader feel the author didn’t really know and couldn’t be bothered to find out.

      All a question of balance, I guess …

      by Zoe Sharp on February 7th, 2008 at 6:27 am

    2. Here’s one that works for me: Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

      by Sara on February 7th, 2008 at 7:30 am

    3. I’m not sure there isn’t always some meaning to Brand names. That person driving the Previa minivan can speak volumes. It doesn’t have to be exotic to have meaning.

      If I write that he had to jockey his LandCruiser into the parking garage, I use less words and get my meaning across than if I try a generic description of the hulking SUV.

      An Antagonist driving a white Honda Accord is someone that doesn’t want to stand out, he wants to blend in.

      A woman, or man for that matter, who drinks Bud Light speaks to her character vs one who drinks Petron Silver straight up.

      Brand names speak to our personality and define us. If using brand names gives the writer economy of words and portrays the necessary setting, mood or character, I have no problem with it. As a reader, I’d rather have that than read through an exhaustive description of the setting which can take away from the pacing.

      If someone is reading my novel decades from now, I’m happy even if they never heard of a Breitling Watch.

      by Will Bereswill on February 7th, 2008 at 8:35 am

    4. “If a young, trim guy eats All-Bran after coming back from his jog, it tells me something (adds texture).”

      No kidding. :lol:

      It’s all in how it’s handled. Dropping names isn’t cool, but when the brand - be it exotic or the opposite - says something about the character, then it works. If it’s dropped just to drop it, without thought or good reason, then it isn’t necessary and becomes annoying. If the flow of the narrative benefits from the use, and saves us all from unnecessary exposition, then it’s good. If not, then not. My humble opinion.

      by JennieB on February 7th, 2008 at 9:06 am

    5. I still think that telling me he drove a sleek, gray sedan is often good enough. Or even a sleek, gray, European sedan. Good enough most of the time, that is.

      I liken it to, in movies, how close in they get to the car grill in the chase scene. I don’t need to see the manufacturer’s emblem to know it’s a cool car - and, more importantly, I want to see what the character does with that cool car.

      That said, I think a lot can come out in dialogue - that perhaps is a more natural place for info. to be given than in a paragraph of authorial exposition. For instance, in my Baltimore crime novel, it’s important to note that the car she sees in the parking lot is a Chevy - it tells her it is police she’s noticing. And even more specific, when those police are calling for the keys to a radio car across the department desks, it’s a Cavalier - better known as a piece of shit Cavalier.

      by Regina Harvey on February 7th, 2008 at 10:39 am

    6. I think Will and Zoe have it right, in that there are features of certain items - guns, cars, watches, boots, etc. - that can both tell something specific about the character, and show that the author had a purpose in having that character use/wear that item. As you also point out, Regina, even when using a more generic/domestic item, it can say a lot. Also, the time period and country is often marked by dropping a few names - a story set in the 20s could benefit from the use of “the new-fangled Bernini sewing machine” (or Rookwood vase, etc.) than from just a generic term.

      If my story ever works out right, it is important to know that the character chose to buy a 1998 Isuzu Trooper, because that’s the year it’s set, it’s her first ever, new car, and she has dogs which get in and out through the unique ‘barn door’ feature in the rear.

      by Kate Hathway on February 7th, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    7. I’m with Zoe and Will here. A brand name can tell me a lot and I’m the guy who says don’t tell me the guy wears a green sport coat unless he’s won the Masters.

      The guy checking his Rolex tells me as much as the guy checking his Timex.

      by David Terrenoire on February 7th, 2008 at 1:47 pm

    8. Jesus, and I’m the guy who used “guy” four times in three sentences.


      by David Terrenoire on February 7th, 2008 at 1:49 pm

    9. But, David, you’re a good guy.

      I’m sticking to my guns - and yes, I could tell you what kind they are but then, wouldn’t it be better if I told you they were tiny, pearl-handled things my great-grandmother used to hide in her voluptuous bosom - one for everyday and the other, with etched silver scroll-work along the barrel, for those special occasions when a lady wants to put forth only her very best.

      by Regina Harvey on February 7th, 2008 at 2:48 pm

    10. Actually, Regina, I had you pictured as sort of a Glock 30 girl - sized to fit the hand but mighty. Maybe a Kimber special, but the Glock is like a hammer - it works, doesn’t need much instruction, and never changes.

      Any that your grandmother could hide in her bosom, no matter how voluptuous, would likely serv only to piss off the determined attacker - unless, of course, it was a Glock 30 (chambered for a .45) and then it would not be ornate, and even the tiny Glock weighs enough to stretch a strap.

      by Bob on February 7th, 2008 at 5:24 pm

    11. You’ve been talking to someone again - the Cavaliers are exactly as described - matter of fact, I remain convinced that that is the name that they should be carrying - except we have a few around here so bad that it would take two of them to make one good piece of shit.

      by Bob on February 7th, 2008 at 5:26 pm

    12. Hey, Bob, can I have a SIG-Sauer P228 instead? I find the trigger action on the Kimber somewhat snatchy.

      Regina: I’m in awe of the capacious and deadly nature of your grandmother’s bosom.

      Will: a Breitling will never go out of style.

      And David: What a guy!

      by Zoe Sharp on February 7th, 2008 at 7:00 pm

    13. I agree that the “brand” needs to add texture. I would argue that saying a man drinks bottled beer rather than draft tells you something about him, but in order for the brand name to come into focus, I think it has to be an extreme.

      Such as the Keystone cans in the trash far outnumbered the Fat Tire bottles which told Marsha that Jimmy had been over at the house with Mike all day.

      Jimmy’s the drunk brother in law with cheap beer and Mike is her husband who was suppose to be fixing the water heater.

      Otherwise, if it’s just beer, there is no difference.

      I like how you describe the brands as adding texture.

      by Lynn on February 7th, 2008 at 7:07 pm

    14. Bob - I’ll take the Glock 30, but only if you pick me up for the range in a piece of shit Cavalier.

      Zoe, honey child - you do scare me just a teensy weensy bit…though my great-grandmother’s bosom was scarier!

      And Lynn - if we ever meet at a mystery convention, I’ll buy the beer - whatever brand you’d like!

      by Regina Harvey on February 7th, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    15. If it’s near St. Louis, I’ll drink Miller Light. If it’s on the west coast, Bud Light. As the Coors commercial always said, It’s the water.

      I’ll be there one of these days. Who can pass up a free beer offer. :)

      by Lynn on February 7th, 2008 at 9:33 pm

    16. I think moderation is the key here. If a brand name is thrown in too often, it pulls me out of the story.

      Way back in the 80s, I remember an article in Writers’ Digest about this brand-name issue. It was suggesting using brands to help draw the reader in. Since I was only 15 at the time, I took every word to heart and immediately wrote the biggest piece of advertising masquerading as fiction ever (aka a hugely horrible piece of doodoo short-story).

      As always, if it fits and it flows use it. If it sucks the reader out of the story, chuck it. JMO. ;o)

      by B.E. Sanderson on February 7th, 2008 at 9:51 pm

    17. B.E. - if you ever unearth a copy of that ad copy, send it to me. I’ll post it - I always wanted to name a post “A Hugely Horrible Piece of Doodoo.”

      Moderation is one of those slippery words, though. Is your moderation my moderation? In all cases such as these, I believe less is more and it’s also the safest bet.

      by Regina Harvey on February 8th, 2008 at 6:34 am

    18. Hey, Lynn - lots of interesting things going on at some of these conventions, free beer aside. Great fodder for the writer’s brain. Hope to see you.

      by Regina Harvey on February 8th, 2008 at 6:36 am

    19. “If it’s near St. Louis, I’ll drink Miller Light. If it’s on the west coast, Bud Light. As the Coors commercial always said, It’s the water.”

      Lynn, if you’re in St. Louis, I’d forget the Miller, unless you’re a non-conformist. That’s the world headquarters of Anheuser-Busch.

      by Will Bereswill on February 8th, 2008 at 9:19 am

    20. Zoe - I’m pretty much a Glock bigot - the only 1911-type I ever liked was my father’s Gold Cup - and my brother got that!

      Regina - I don’t rank high enough on the scale to be allowed to drive a departmental piece of shit Cavalier - how about my old Volvo, or my big Kawasaki Harley lookalike - with enough room in the bags to carry so much ammo you’d get tired of moving it.

      Or, if you’re really shy, I’ll give your other half the keys to the Kawasaki and ride my other bike….

      by Bob on February 8th, 2008 at 11:12 am

    21. Will,
      Actually I can’t stand the taste of the Bud light here. And I’ve been pretty lucky with the bars I go to do serve Miller.

      A non - conformist, Me? Darn right. :D

      The tour of the brewery was pretty cool. But I want to go to the Lemp brewery and see all the ghosts.

      by Lynn on February 8th, 2008 at 7:50 pm

    22. I just finished a fiction book by a former Presidential adviser and it had everyone drinking brand-name Scotch the entire time. And it was the same damn stuff every time.

      … Gotta wonder how much he got for it.

      by Brand Naming Agency Guy on February 10th, 2008 at 8:56 pm

    23. Sorry to be slow in responding, B.N.A.G. I think that kind of payment for product placement does happen. There was an article about it a little over a year ago - now where was that?

      Too lazy to go look. I’d rather sit here drinking my bottle of Deer Park Natural Spring Water, which I was interested to note, was established in 1873.

      Think they’ll send me a check on spec?

      by Regina Harvey on February 12th, 2008 at 3:40 pm

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