The Writer’s Toolbox – A Company Affair, Part IV

Over the past few installments we’ve explored the relationship between brand names and the written word. Last week we discussed whether to genericize product names, like Xerox vs. the verb “to xerox” or Google vs. “to google” (or “to Google,” depending on which dictionary you use). This week we take things a step further and ask the bigger question: especially in fiction, should we be using brand names at all?

What is this stuff?

There are as many different answers to this question as there are writers, but a few guidelines are helpful if you’re still developing your own perspective.

First, it’s important to consider the effect of a particular brand name on your readers. Does it evoke a certain mood, a social class, a lifestyle? A character grabbing their daily Frap from the Starbucks drive-through has a different connotation than a character ordering a handcrafted iced, whipped coffee from the local beanery. A grocery run to Whole Foods is probably going to sound more yuppie than shopping at the health food store.

Consider, too, whether the brand name you’re using has a regional link that might confuse readers from a different geographic area. Sadly, most Americans have no idea what’s meant by a box of Timbits.

Finally, is there a chance that the brand name may become dated or obsolete? If your book is set in the 1980s, Dino Pebbles on the breakfast table makes sense, but if you’re writing something more timeless, be cautious of the effect the casual mention of brands may have. Electronics technology is particularly susceptible to this issue.

It doesn’t have to be so complicated…

Then there’s the question of clear, concise writing. Sometimes trying to use a generic reference is so awkward and unwieldy that keeping the real-life brand name makes a more readable sentence. “She typed the words into the search engine” is a lot clunkier than the direct “She googled it.”

Additionally, generic references can often feel strained and unnatural in dialogue. Kleenex might not be happy about their brand dilution, but not many people today say “Do you have any facial tissue in your purse?”

…unless there’s a legal question

Where does the law come in? That’s a tricky question, but as this article suggests, the biggest issue centers around what’s called brand tarnishment, or defamation. Simply put, companies don’t want to look bad, and they’re more likely to crack down on references that paint them or their products in a bad light.

It’s obvious that if your character finds a fingernail in their calzone, it’s better if the order comes from Joe Schmo’s Pizzeria rather than a national chain. What might be harder to spot are instances where nothing bad happens, but there are negative connotations. In these cases, err on the side of caution and go with generic, even when it’s all a big joke. For example, if your characters are laughing about amusement park character costumes being a great way to score hot single moms, you’d best be talking about a made-up amusement park?or risk legal action.

Final thoughts

Whether you’re using brand names in fiction or simply checking whether to capitalize the name of a product, the key takeaway from our Toolbox mini-series is this: respect is key, both of the work the company’s put into its brand creation and of the people who use and speak about the product every day.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.