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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Writing - using brand names

Recently I came across a query from a writer concerning the use of brand names in a current or new novel. The feeling was that brands shouldn’t be used in the story as they will date the book. I’ve encountered this viewpoint before, and I don’t believe it stands up to examination.

The first assumption is that the novel will still be read in five, ten, fifteen or twenty years hence. Apart from a handful of bestsellers and Big Names, it’s probable that our books will gather dust or be archived on an e-reader in less than five years’ time!

I’ve also read elsewhere that writers worry about mentioning a make of car because it will date the book. This is nonsense. Naturally, it depends on where you live, but generally there are plenty of old makes of car driving around, some of them well over twenty years of age.

By their very nature, contemporary novels are written in the now. Without the gift of clairvoyance, a writer cannot predict what will be appropriate or fashionable in ten or twenty years’ time – that goes for clothing, vehicles, utensils, electric apparatus, types of buildings and vocabulary. So why stress over it?

Brand names serve a purpose. Brands identify visually for the reader now, and help with verisimilitude, whereas generalizing doesn't put the reader there. Any number of classic crime novels refer to out-of-date commodities; the reader doesn’t care, the reader is sensible enough to know when the book was originally published. If a fairly ‘old’ book is available and is being read, then the reader is probably aware of its provenance.

Let’s be honest, some people still use the old-fashioned typewriter rather than a computer to type. I believe Frederick Forsyth bought a new typewriter before starting a new book; he must have quite a collection by now. Some writers still use a pen. 

Some things never go out of fashion, or if they do, they may well return - vinyl discs, for example.

Motion pictures can be used to bolster this argument, too. A movie is of its time, even if contemporary when filmed. Audiences don’t dismiss the film because it’s ten or so years old. It’s the story that matters. Take for example the science fiction film, Blade Runner (1982): now, several big-name brands in that film have long been out of business, though the film was supposed to occur in 2019; this discrepancy doesn't affect the attraction of the movie, even now; it’s an alternative or parallel universe.

Bottom line. Use brand names where appropriate. Beware, however, how they’re used; if in a derogatory manner, those lawyers might take an interest!


Neil Waring said...

Nice post and I agree, sometimes I like the dating that brand names give the story.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks, Neil. I'm sure posterity won't mind us including visual cues that might 'date' a story!

G. B. Miller said...

With most of the stories I write, I try to use universal brand names (i.e. those that have been around since the turn of 20th century from the 19th) that fit in regardless of the time-frame/period that the story resides in. Makes life much simpler.

Ray said...

I think that using 'brands' adds to the time and place of the story. In modern times by having a character playing a console game like 'Titanfall' or 'Call Of Duty' would resonate more with the reader than some made up name. Likewise, I can recall stories where the placing of a packet of OMO washing powder in the window had a place (Old Man Out) where bored housewives were concerned. Cortina and Capri and the Mini are again both of their time and now. So I'm with you - if it has a place use it.

Nik Morton said...

Thanks George and Ray for the feedback. And of course nowadays they talk about even writers being brands!