On Brand Names and Famous People Mentioned in Books

I’m writing this post thanks to a short conversation on Twitter with Portia daCosta. Portia was mentioning that she’s been giving up the use of labels in her writing. And it triggered something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now…

Way back in the ’90s I was reading a Sue Grafton novel and she had her heroine Kinsey Milhone pulling on a pair of Skechers™. At the time  I had no idea what Skechers were. I’d never heard of them before. From the context, I knew she was talking about a pair of running shoes since Kinsey was about to go jogging, but mentioning a brand I didn’t know threw me out of the story. (I live in Canada, and the fictional Kinsey lives in California. At the time I don’t believe Skechers were sold in Canada, though they are now. If they were, they were not stocked in any of the stores in my neck of the woods.)

I think that was one of the first times I’d seen an author use a brand name in a book, other than perhaps a hero like James Bond driving an Aston Martin™.  Then in the early 2000s, I noticed lots of brands appearing in books.  Suddenly heroes (and the occasional heroine) were drinking Grey Goose™ vodka and checking their Breitling™ watches.  I wasn’t sure what to think of it other than to vaguely wonder if authors were getting kickbacks to mention certain products in their books, the way actors do if they mention a product on a talk show. (I know better now.)

I was reading another book a couple weeks ago where the hero put on a pair of Oakley sunglasses. I won’t name the author or the book because I really did enjoy the book, and it’s not a big issue — but for a brief moment it pulled me out of the book because I’d never heard of Oakley™ sunglasses.  And then I started wondering — why was it important to name the brand of sunglasses? I can see saying the hero was wearing wrap around sunglasses, or aviator sunglasses, but Oakley’s? Since I had no idea what they were, and I didn’t care enough to Google them, it told me nothing about the character.

As I started to write (seriously) myself, I realized that the author was trying to “show” that the character was rich, or alternately, not rich depending on what they were wearing. But it went with an assumption that the reader knew Grey Goose was an expensive vodka (which I hadn’t known), and that Breitling is an expensive watch (which I had known.) Skechers and Oakleys? Not sure what Skechers was supposed to tell us about Kinsey — it’s a brand. Which of the shoes in the screen shot to the right are the type Kinsey would wear? So why is it important for me to know she wears Skechers?

What about Oakleys? In the interest of writing this post, I caved and just Googled™ them — there are all sorts of different types of shapes to Oakleys as shown in the pic to the left so mentioning the brand tells me nothing about the type the hero was wearing. So what was gained by the author in mentioning the brand?

And ironically, isn’t it interesting that I do use “Googled” for searching something on the web as it’s become an accepted term even though it also is a brand and is trademarked.

Mentions of restaurants lose me too — we don’t have a lot of the restaurants that are common in the States. And those we do have often have different menus. Kentucky Fried Chicken™ for instance have quite a different menu in the States. Ours is more limited in comparison. (The Canadian stores don’t offer biscuits for instance, a loss my husband bemoans every single time we return from the States.)  But if the author mention a restaurant that’s not in Canada, or somewhere I’ve never been, expecting me to know automatically what status it is (fast food or fancy)  loses me as a reader since I have no form of reference.

A mention of a television show can also quickly pull me out of a story, especially since some shows (both British and US) are never shown here in Canada or may only show up on Netflicks years later.  Or maybe I’ve never watched them at all. Plus referring to a show that has long gone off the air can date the books. Mention a heroine sitting down to watch Lost™ (just an example because it was the first show I could think of) and you’ve lost me–first off because I never watched it. (I tried to, but got “lost”), and second because how long has it been off the air now? Talk about a reference guaranteed to date your book.

Same with comparing a hero to a specific actor.  Maybe I know them, lots of times I don’t, or worse, maybe I really despise them.  Do NOT tell me the hero looked like Robert Pattinson because all I will remember is watching him on the Tonight Show™, telling Leno that he hates to  wash his hair. Yuck.

Plus frankly, mentioning that a character looks like someone famous is a lazy way of describing the hero or heroine, as lazy as having them look at themselves in the mirror and launch into a long description of themselves. So I lose respect for the author’s skills.

Putting on my reader hat here, when I’m reading, I prefer to form my own image of a character, or a setting, in my head. (Don’t even get me started on my reaction when they announced the filming of Harry Potter — the images of those characters were so firmly in my head, and the setting too, that I almost cried when they announced/showed some of the casting. I like the actors all just fine, but they changed forever how I saw the book in my head and that I shall forever mourn.)

Yes, I’ve used brand names in my own books. Sam and his Harley Davidson motorcycle, for instance. But it can backfire. In Personal Protection, I had my characters carrying BlackBerry phones.  At the time I wrote it, BlackBerry was a leader in innovation. President Obama was just being voted in and he carried one — and it was considered one of the safest phones to use for emails as RIM™ had its own encrypted mail system that I thought my Hauberk guys would be interested in using over more unsafe platforms. Plus RIM is (at the moment) a Canadian company and I thought “Hey, I can promote something Canadian in my books. Cool!” Um, yeah, with the way BlackBerry is going these days, you may notice I only refer to them carrying smart phones or cell phones in my more recent books.

So yes, like Portia, I’m trying not to write brand names into my books these days.  But I wondered. Is it just me? What do you think of brand names in books? Thumbs up, or thumbs down?

2 thoughts on “On Brand Names and Famous People Mentioned in Books

  1. I guess the odd brand name might still slip into my writing here and there, but on the whole I’m mostly trying to avoid them nowadays.

    I’m with you on using actor names too. My heroes are always modelled on actors I have a crush on. I call them my ‘hero templates’. But I never use their names and instead I try to describe them in such a way that people who know me will recognise the guy, but those who don’t can create their own picture of how they want him to look. The nearest I might get is ‘he reminded her of the guy in her favourite cop show on the telly’, but that’s all. No actor name, no show name.

    ps. must own up to giving the hero of KISS IT BETTER an Aston Martin DBS Coupe, but it was a fun little plot thing that he drove a Bond car. LOL

    • I’ve had my heroes drive Porsches and Humvees. I think cars are more accepted than some other brand names, Portia. And the Aston Martin is universally known I think, thanks to the James Bond franchise. I modeled my Sam after Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson, but I never named him in the story. (Plus the danger of naming real people is if they end up dead shortly after, or in some really awful scandal.) Oh, and I had him drinking a specific beer brand as well. Which can also be a way of getting into the area — sometimes it’s a way of world-building. If I’m writing a Canadian story, I basically have to mention them stopping off at a Tim Horton’s (or Timmy’s as they’re more commonly referred to up here) at some point. It’s part of the flavor of the area.

      I don’t mind the occasional mention of brands; I think they’re hard to avoid. But if it’s a brand that’s not available everywhere, or there’s no reason for them to have a specific brand (like something people from that area would wear, or a product they’d eat or drink because it’s part of the culture) then it makes me wonder. And of course, as with everything in writing, moderation is the key.

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