Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Guest Post: Jeanne on "(Brand) Name Dropping"

Please welcome back Jeanne of the Bristol Public Library with a few thoughts regarding brand names in stories. When I think of this sort of thing, I think of Stuart Woods and his Stone Barrington series where the brand name dropping is everywhere on nearly every page. I don’t think so much about how such tactics can date the work. It does and Jeanne shares some examples below.  

(Brand) Name Dropping

Years and years ago, I was reading a novel which mentioned a character watching a Star Trek rerun. This would have been around 1972 or so, when I was an ardent Star Trek fan before there was a real organized fan network, so the mere mention electrified me. I went on to notice that the author mentioned other things by brand name, such as Noxzema.  I was surprised but at the time I thought it made the book seem immediate and up to date—the show was playing every afternoon in syndication on a semi-local station, so that made perfect sense. I was impressed.

A few decades down the road, I’m not so sure.  It’s not so much the product placement (a concept I’m not sure was around then) but product longevity, something that seems in short supply these days.  More and more it seems that when I pick up an older book, there’s some reference to a company or product that has gone extinct.  It’s a little disconcerting when the book would almost seem to be contemporary because it instantly reminds me that it’s not.  To pull an example from a comic book, I vividly remember a scene in a Batman comic in which Bruce Wayne receives a video tape sent anonymously.  He looks at it and comments that at least the sender had the sense to send a Betamax tape.

Is there a show of hands of folks who know the significance? Uh… how about people who remember Betamax?  Okay, how many know what Betamax was? I’m only half kidding, because most of the people with whom I work would not understand at all that the dialog was intended to reinforce the image of Bruce as a connoisseur, someone who appreciated the higher quality picture that Betamax afforded.  To readers now, it would indicate he was hopelessly outdated and would evoke laughter.  I’m sure that should the story ever be reprinted, the Betamax reference would be expunged.  It certainly wouldn’t be first to undergo such revision:  there are a number of children’s books which have been updated for various reasons, including outdated language and stereotypes.  The Nancy Drew series has been updated several times, starting in 1959.  Some fans still mourn the loss of the blue roadster. (Or was it maroon?)

It’s quite a different thing if a writer wants to evoke an earlier era.  Then the references to people and products are a deliberate attempt to show readers when they are, though sometimes the authors have to word things carefully to make sure readers know what is being discussed.  For example, if a character in the early 1970s is enjoying a delicious Smoothie, the audience should understand that it is not a drink but candy somewhat like a Reese’s Cup but the peanut butter is covered in butterscotch.  Most recently, I encountered this in Joanna Cannon’s The Trouble with Goats and Sheep; she named dropped then current TV shows, celebrities, candy, and other products to remind people of the time period.

On the other hand, there are authors who use such deeply contemporary books as sources for their own historical novels.  Most recently I heard David O. Stewart discuss reading period novels for his new mystery, The Babe Ruth Deception, in order to check for slang expressions. He also commented on that some of the books were difficult to read because the sentence structure and vocabulary were so different from contemporary novels. (Stewart is an historian and lawyer and author of several non-fiction books, but he has a series of historical mysteries set in the early part of the 20th century. He was being interviewed on the radio show Your Weekly Constitutional  about the special place baseball has in Constitutional law.  Really.  You can listen to the podcast at

So, authors, you may want to consider how long you expect your work to be read before you have a character walk down the street absorbed in Pokemon Go!

(Note:  I am reasonably sure that the first book I mentioned was The Mephisto Waltz by Fred Mustard Stewart, which I recall as being a nifty little horror novel along the lines of Rosemary’s Baby.  Our library doesn’t hold a copy so I couldn’t check to see if the reference to Star Trek was there, which would confirm its identity.  It was published in 1969, so that fits.  A recent review by Lobstergirl at Goodreads calls it “wonderfully dated” with “ghastly product placement.” Ummm,  well, that probably fits too.)


Paul D. Marks said...

Lots of good points, Jeanne. And, though I never read The Mephisto Waltz, I remember it as being a pretty good and spooky movie. Paul

Jacqueline Seewald said...

Writers also have to check if certain products are trademarked. Mentioning contemporary brands, using period slang, all helps to give a genuine feel to historical literature. I agree though that contemporary lit becomes outdated very quickly especially in our tech age. Writers do have to take care.

jrlindermuth said...

If a novel is set in a particular time and place and the reader acknowledges it, I don't see it as a big problem. Without the reader's acceptance of the time period, though, it can pose problems.
Jacqui is also right about watching out for those trademarked brands. Some companies can be very snarky if you don't acknowledge the trademark and refer to the product properly.

Anne Louise Bannon said...

There's also the idea that books that were written in an era fairly close to our own - say within the past 20 years - will seem dated. But the further away we get from, say, the 1920s, then all those quaint popular culture and brand name references become a fascinating glimpse into real life at the time. Same for movies. So I guess I'm writing for the historians of the future. ;-)

Shalanna said...

When I was taking grad courses in creative writing, the trend of the moment was "realism through brand names." They justified it by pointing to Stephen King and others who dropped brand names of products, cars, etc., as well as celebrities. Throughout their novels, they put in these things and said it would make it more believable and realistic.

I thought the name-dropping was kind of dumb. I would rather say, "Hand me a tissue," and not have to worry about the Kimberly-Clark trademark. But the trend was like that for many years.

I always feel that if I need to mention a celebrity as a touchstone, I should choose someone who has already stood the test of time. I would never mention Bieber or Gaga or Goo-Goo-Head. Who doesn't know what I mean when I say someone sings like Frank Sinatra, like the Rat Pack? Well . . . the younglings of today claim they do not know. They say they never heard of Cary Grant, f'Heavensake! They claim not to have heard any Beatles songs (although I am sure they HAVE, even if they don't know what the songs are called.) I call that ignorance, and I say I need to edify them by having them look up the names after seeing them in my fiction. That's MY story, and I'm sticking to it. As for not being supposed to mention Dickens, Shakespeare, Milton, et al, I think we can mention authors who have been in the Western canon for hundreds of years--with the same rationale. They SHOULD know these authors, so let 'em learn. ;)