Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Writing 101: Brand Names

We all snigger during the movie or TV show when someone's drinking a black-label can of a beverage called "Soda," because it's so obviously generic. But we also know why the movies and TV shows do it: they can't afford to pay a billion-dollar company for the rights to the brand name, or perhaps they don't want to endorse a brand name, or the company said they couldn't use the brand name, or whatever. Basically, they don't want to break the law by using a brand name they don't own. So what about when you use a brand name in your book?

Brand Names

We all use brand names, and everybody owns something with at least one designer label (yes, Levi counts as a designer label). I wash my dishes in Dawn, drink Coca-Cola products and swear by the Swiffer. But is it okay if my characters do, too? Telling your girlfriend to run right out and buy Colgate toothpaste in one thing; self-publishing it in print (or eprint) is quite another. So are your characters texting on Androids, or smartphones? Are they crying into a handful of tissues, or Kleenex?

Using Brand Names in Your Book

There's no simple answers -- there never are. Basically, it boils down to this: it's all in the usage. Yes, you can use brand names and no, you don't have to pay for them...unless you screw up.

  • Brands as Nouns
Writing brand names into any book is very tricky. You can use them, but only when it's specific to that brand. For example, it's not okay to use the word in place of everyday nouns. You can't replace the word "toilet paper" with a specific brand like Charmin. You characters shouldn't be "typing away on the Sony Vaio" instead of on the laptop. In other words, you can't use brand names generically. However, if you add the specific modifier ("typing away on the Sony Vaio laptop") the usage is a little more specific.

You can reference that your character is using their iPhone to make a call or send a text, or that she reached for a can of her favorite soda, Diet Coke. You cannot use the word "Coke" when you mean any can of cola or soda pop. Brand names have to be used specifically, not generically. But even when you're careful about specifics, you're not out of the woods.
  • Negativity
It's fine, and makes a story much more believable, to use brand names as a background in the story. It adds a certain element of realism when your characters enjoy a fine bottle of Dom Perignon rather than any old bottle of fancy champagne. But if you go on to say that the Dom Perignon tasted like utter swill, you're in trouble. Companies do not like having their brand names disparaged, and if you do then you leave the door wide open for a lawsuit. It's called defamation, and it is illegal. In other words, it's fine to mention brand names. It's not okay to make any judgments about them.
  • Designer Labels
Can you mention designer labels? Absolutely! Let your characters strut their stuff in fancy duds from Calvin Klein, or have them sweating it out in a pair of well-worn Wranglers. Again, don't use the brand names generically and don't use them disparagingly in any way, and you're perfectly safe.

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  1. So, in a new book I have started, my main character was listening to Faith Hill on her IPod. I only said that she is listening to Faith but I did mention the IPod. Would that be acceptable? Would I be able to use Faith Hill's full name in my book of stick to the first name (the descriptor of the music makes it obvious to anyone who has heard Faith Hill that it is her music to which I am referring). What do you think? Interesting post BTW :)
    - Karen

  2. Great questions. I think it's fine to use Faith Hill's name as long as you don't have anything negative to say about her or her music, and you certainly shouldn't simply refer to her as Faith. There's a band named Faith, too. If it's at all dicey, don't use her name at all and just call her a "sultry country singer" or something of the like. You can absolutely use the brand name iPod, but you've got to style it correctly.

  3. Great explanation. You've concisely explained the way to use brand names. Well done.