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 To readers now, it would indicate he was hopelessly outdated and would evoke laughter.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to undergo such revision: there are a number of children’s books which have been updated for various reasons, including outdated language and stereotypes.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 https://www.montpelier.org/center/radio.)
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.)