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Brand names in stories

May 23, 2010

So I’m reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Much has already been written about the author Stieg Larsson’s blatant product placement on behalf of the Apple corporation. Certainly, the execs at Apple would not be complaining about the international bestseller’s description of their laptop as ‘the Rolls Royce of portable computers’, right under a detailed description of the machine. Companies usually pay top dollar for such valuable advertising – a la Aston Martin in the Bond movies. But it’s doubtful Apple paid Larsson a cent; the poor guy died an unknown writer before a single copy of his novel was ever sold. No, apparently he was simply a Mac nerd, and I think his rave was for love.

How would it be, do you think, if he’d described the thing as ‘a dog’s breakfast’ of computers instead? And what if the impact was a measurable drop in sales (as the impact of his rave was possibly a rise in sales)? What would Apple do then? Sue? No case for trade libel there – such a description is a statement of opinion rather than fact, but you can bet the lawyers would at least look into it if Apple was damaged.

Of course, fiction writers often describe things by brand for realism’s sake, but it doesn’t necessarily work. Look at Larsson’s computer rave. It’s an authorial intrusion into the story that takes the reader right out of the action, thinking, ‘What the …?’ His novel is littered with named products, although none of the others read so bizarrely as product placement. For instance, you always know the names of the books or at least the authors that his characters are reading. Okay, it’s logical that the amateur detective is reading a mystery novel by Sue Grafton, but the point would be lost on readers who’ve never heard of Sue Grafton – once again causing a ‘what the …?’ moment.

In good writing, descriptions add something to the story. If the brand name is shorthand for a complex image and immediately conjures a world, it’s useful. It can say a lot about a character, for example, that they’re seen stepping out of a green Mercedes or only wear Nike. (Exactly what it says depends on the context.)

And, like any other inclusion in the story, the brand name works if it comes across naturally – as a handle that a character or observer in the story would use anyway; in other words, as an obvious part of a description. In the Tomorrow series, John Marsden uses brand names as shorthand like this. One example: ‘… fuelled by the mixture of muesli and Rice Bubbles I’d just eaten …’ It works in the voice of a character who would naturally describe that particular rice cereal in the blue packet as Rice Bubbles. In fact, it would be weird if she called them anything else. And, what’s more, every Australian reader would instantly have a picture. Non-Australian readers? Well, Rice Bubbles is pretty obvious anyway.

It can also be a mark of the author’s style.  In Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides refers to golf balls as ‘Wilsons and Spaldings’. His main character is dressed, for example, thus: ‘I wore a camel-hair turtleneck, tweed blazer, and jeans. And a pair of handmade cordovans by Edward Green. This particular style is called the Dundee. They look dressy until you notice the Vibram soles. The leather is of a double thickness. The Dundee is a shoe designed for …’ etcetera, etcetera. What you get- all at the same time – is meticulous and gorgeous detail, an understanding that our character is charmed by things and appreciates style, and a precise historical setting. This is peerless writing.

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