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March 05, 2006

Products in Fiction

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm not much into fiction, but osmosis or delusion tells me that some writers drop product names into their books.

I'll assume formal "product placement" hasn't yet made the jump from Hollywood and TV to Fifth Avenue and environs. Rather, my guess is that writers are simply trying to establish a "sense of place" or perhaps a sense of time and place -- usually "today."

This is okay by me so long as the novel becomes fishwrap within five years. But what if the writer wants his precious effort to be "immortal"?

Seems to me that immortality and naming things don't easily go together.

Consider this passage:

He gave his open luggage one last scan. What else might be needed on the Continent? Oh yes. He made a pass through the room, tossed in a few boxes of Pear's, Lucifers and Navy Cuts, closed the luggage, shut off the lights and headed downstairs to hail a cab for Waterloo.

Did you get all that? Exactly what was added to the luggage at the last moment? And just where was the character heading via the cab? Given the quality of 2Blowhards readership, I'll assume a perfect "4." Just in case, here's a translated version of the nano-drama I concocted:

He gave his open luggage one last scan. What else might be needed on the Continent? Oh yes. He made a pass through the room, tossed in a few boxes of soap, matches and cigarettes, closed the luggage, shut off the lights and headed downstairs to hail a cab for the train station.

As you probably guessed, the scene was in the London of nearly 100 years ago.

"Lucifer" was not a product, but a term used in England at the time for what we would call a "kitchen match." Pear's was a popular scented hand soap. Navy Cut was part of Player's cigarette product line. I suspect most younger Americans, even if college-educated, do not know these details; their inclusion in the first passage would only mystify.

Even "Waterloo" could pose a problem to a reader who had never been to London and perhaps even to casual tourists who enter and leave England only by air. True, it was the most likely station to start a journey to France, but this detail adds nothing important to the first narrative, The second version suffices because the reader can assume the unnamed character would be taking the most convenient route unless that wasn't the case, which would then be a plot element.

Using product names is dangerous because, over the span of decades, product lines can be abandoned and companies can go out of business (so much for the notion of all-powerful corporations). This is true for brands that seem unassailable. For instance, a Gatsby-like story set in a ritzy 1920s exurb might mention a character owning or being driven up in a Packard automobile. How many younger readers know that, in the 20s, Packards were at the top of the luxury-car heap in America? (The last "real" Packards were 1956s.) Better to write that the character was driven up in a limousine, brand unmentioned: that conveys the notion of luxury.

If you have read J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book you might have noticed that she mentions computers and computer games (or something similar). These mentions instantly date a book that, it turns out, is likely to be a classic. Rowling, once the magnitude of her success became apparent, did not repeat that mistake, keeping period references to a minimum thereafter.

In a nutshell, the dilemma for an author is that he might have a need to convey a sense of time and place to his story, yet the naming of time-place-specific objects can bring readers to a confused halt, leaving the narrative thrust a shambles.

What is to be done? If the novel is a page-turner beach book set in current times, there likely is no problem; in 40 years, it's likely to be read by no one but cultural historians. Otherwise, details can be treated generically as I did above, but with carefully-selected names added for anchorage.

But I could be mistaken. How have actual authors (not amateurs who blog) dealt with this situation? What might you do?



posted by Donald at March 5, 2006


I am a Joyce fan. Somebody said you could build Dublin in Arizona from the detail in "Ulysses", and there remain mysteries based on concrete references undeciphered to this day. Is Shakespeare unreadable anymore because I don't really know what a bodkin is?

On the other hand, it really irritates me when a person in a book or movie walks into a classy bar and orders "beer" or "whiskey". It breaks the illusion.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on March 5, 2006 8:40 PM

"On the other hand, it really irritates me when a person in a book or movie walks into a classy bar and orders "beer" or "whiskey". It breaks the illusion."

As in 1999's Eyes Wide Shut. Tom Cruise's character walks into a nightclub and orders "a beer," and the waiter goes off to get it.

Posted by: Peter on March 5, 2006 9:55 PM

I was three for four on your quiz, not knowing that Waterloo was a train station. But Pears has been a soap in England for so long that it seems a special case. Navy Cut not so familiar. But a "lucifer" is often used in Westerns along with the name of the most popular coffee and other common products until the words become a sort of "inside" vocabulary. In fact, there are so many product words used in the West that wouldn't be recognized by Easterners that it could present a problem. What is a "Hawken" to you? (It's a gun made by a specific family with specific characteristics.) Readers and writers both pride themselves on knowing a lot of inside stuff like this -- it's not product placement since the companies don't exist anymore.

The smart writer puts in enough context for a reader to figure it out, esp. if it's a plot point. But I think the wise reader will just go along with it until the word comes clear. I would hate to think that writers are limited to the experience and knowledge set of ANY kind of reader, let alone today's products of "higher" education.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on March 5, 2006 11:57 PM

There are a couple of other considerations too, it seems to me. One's that product names can be like spice -- they can add aroma and flavor. God knows this can be overdone, but (using Mary's example) using the name "Hawken" instead of "a gun" can help set a tone. You don't have to know exactly what the Hawken brandname represents to get the fact that it represents something, and maybe that's all that needs to count. Writers scatter all kinds of words around like perfume anyway. I remember reading some Proust in French long ago, when I was a student. I dutifully underlined and looked up the French words I didn't know. Trouble was, I didn't know the English words either. Eventually I gave up and went with the flow. It didn't really matter -- the words were really just there for the charm and the atmosphere anyway. And they were pretty effective and casting their spell. I think brand names can do that too, at least sometimes. If all the words in a work of fiction are generic enough so that people in a hundred years will have no trouble understanding them, the fiction is likely to be a bit generic too in its impact. But you're right: balancing immediacy with long-term comprehensibility is a challenge. On the other hand, no one really knows what's going to last anyway, so why fret over it too much? 99% of the time, writing for the ages tends to do more harm than good.

There's also a specific art/lit-game that sometime gets played that's dependent on brand names. Use 'em a lot, and you can create a kind of numbed-out, swamped-in-commercialism kind of feeling or atmosphere. Literary short story writers were doing a lot of this a few decades ago. And Brett Easton Ellis made a big show of it in "American Psycho," where the protagonist's fixation on brand names was meant to reflect a pathological mind. In these cases using brand names is a little like early cubists using cigarette boxes and absinthe labels in their paintings. And some of those paintings seem to have lasted pretty well ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 6, 2006 1:55 AM

Bob -- I admit to being pretty impatient. I hate puzzles and avoid 'em. Joyce's major works seem puzzle-like so I avoid 'em too, even though they might be the greatest works in English since Julius Caesar's second visit to the isles. But if Joyce included stuff that nobody has decyphered ... !!!

As for Shakespeare, well, there's nothing any writer can do about the evolution of a language. But then, Bill was known to invent words, some of which caught on and others failed. So I say he was playing a dangerous game when he did that.

Mary -- A "Hawken" would be lost on me and most non-In readers whereas a "Colt 45 revolver" would likely be understood by most. So, unless a novel using Hawken was intended solely for readers with deep knowledge of that time-place (a commercial if not artistic insanity) then at least a little further explanation would be called for. That is, just what kind of weapon is a Hawken, why is a Hawken noteworthy and (especially) why is the fact that the weapon was a Hawken relevant to plot or character -- for instance, it can be a big difference if a character is carrying a Derringer instead of a Colt 45.

Michael -- I should have stated that I was thinking of cases where brand names are peppered liberally throughout the text. Still, I find obscure references can be annoying. Yet they can be educational if I take the trouble to look them up (a fairly easy matter nowadays with the Internet). On the third hand, too much stopping to look things up can be a chore. And on the fourth hand, skimming past a lot of unknown/undefined words can give me the uneasy sense that I'm missing something I probably shouldn't be.

In the post I suggested not mentioning "Packard" and substituting "limousine" if one were writing a Twenties period piece. On (a tiny bit of) further thought, it might be best to have the character driven up in a "Packard limousine" or "Packard phaeton" -- this combines the concept of a ritzy car (even if the reader is hazy regarding what a phaeton is) with the concrete period detail of the Packard brand.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 6, 2006 2:06 PM

This is especially true when trying to write for an international audience. They may understand English, but not understand some of the vocabulary.

I don't have as much of a problem with the "commercialization" (and its anachronistic nature) as I do with the fact that writers use it as shortcuts to evocative descriptions.

But let's face facts. Brands are everywhere, and most of the time we use them in everyday conversation. And although I don't particularly like product placement on tv shows, there are cases where it makes perfect sense to do it, both from an artistic and commercial point of view.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 6, 2006 2:35 PM

There are times when pop culture references can be employed for obfuscation as well.

In a short story of mine, I described a character as falling in love with Natalie Portman, knowing full well that several decades later, readers might not catch the reference and assume that Natalie Portman were an actual literary character. Sometimes they can be used ironically, see Updike's Rabbit is Rich book.

(Still, given that I've still head of lots of actors from the silent film era, perhaps my confidence is misplaced.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on March 6, 2006 2:39 PM

For me, a piece of fiction need not take place in a generic present day for me to be invested in it. With your translation approach, you could eliminate all period brand name references, but all the writing would start to sound flat.

However, I do agree that over-using brand names in lieu of description can be tiresome to read.

Posted by: claire on March 6, 2006 4:49 PM

I find units and money to be a problem when reading a novel sometimes. How far are the versts that one encounters in Russian novels? How much money is an annual income of a hundred pounds in a Victorian novel? Is a $5 tip to a bellboy extravagant in a story set in the 20s?

Posted by: mark on March 6, 2006 6:27 PM

One place where J. K. Rowling did date the first Harry Potter book was where she mentioned that an alchemist named Nicolas Flamel, who had made the Philosopher's Stone that imparts immortality, had celebrated his 665th birthday the year before. Flamel, who was about the only real person mentioned in the entire book, was born in 1330, and the resultant 1996 date would be about when Rowling was writing the book.

The historical Flamel died in 1418 (even so, to live to be 88 in the 1400s probably would take a good dose of Philosopher's Stone), but Rowling's little joke was assuming that the historical record was fudged somehow and he actually lived into the present day.

Or was it a little joke? I recently read a French edition of Robert Heinlein's DOOR INTO SUMMER, and in the back was a listing of the French publisher's other offerings circa late 1973 or so. One was a book about Nicolas Flamel, subtitled, "and the Legend of His Survival." Rowling studied French in college and spent an academic year in Paris, and perhaps could have seen that book or at least heard the legend it was based on, so maybe the idea that Flamel outlived the normal human expiration date wasn't original with her after all.

As for product references... I seem to recall that the James Bond novels got some attention because Ian Fleming was prone to mentioning brand names. At the time, it was either unusual, or at least to Fleming's extent, and apparently he did it knowledgeably, showing Bond had exquisite taste and always used the best of anything.

Even as a kid, I could tell when writers were dodging the issue (by referring to "facial tissue" when everyone I knew said "Kleenex," for example), and I really hated it when they used fake or parody names. Oh, the irritation I felt when some character in the Alley Oop comic strip identified a car as a "Thundillac." It was fake! It was bogus! It was not real! There was no car with such a name! (And I prided myself on knowing automotive marques.) And as a silly blend of two real brand names, it seemed stupid and even contemptuous of the reader's intelligence. But... maybe writers weren't clear on where a line could be drawn. Would product references seem like a crass plug, as now seems to be the case in movie "product placement"? Or could they be sued by the trademark owners for unauthorized use? Best to play it safe, maybe.

For arguments against using product references at all, a collection of Ayn Rand's lectures on fiction writing has been published under the title THE ART OF FICTION by Ayn Rand. Talk about a counsel of perfection...she recommends not making any reference to anything that hasn't been around for less than a hundred years because then you can be sure it will last and the reader will understand it. Following this and her other advice will perhaps result in a novel like ATLAS SHRUGGED, in which she basically invented her universe from the bedrock up -- which is fine if that's your intention. But for mere mortal writers who aren't writing for the ages, I tend to the idea that maybe a few references to the world in which the characters (and the readers) live might actually be a good thing.

Posted by: Dwight Decker on March 6, 2006 7:17 PM

I think it kind of depends on whether "lucifers" and "pears" matter in the rest of the plot. If these are "important" details, then it becomes irritating as the reader to not even understand what object is so important! I hate saying ohhh,soap! halfway through the book. But if that paragraph is simply to convey that the character is fastidious, then it probably doesn't matter what he remembered to add to his luggage at the last minute, just that he did it.

Posted by: annette on March 7, 2006 12:09 PM

Surely including the ephemeral is necessary to lend texture and credibility to any fictional world ?
One of the writer's skills is to be able to do so without annoying either the knowledgeable or the ignorant.

Here's an entire (and entertaining) book on the ephemeral -

Posted by: Nigel on March 7, 2006 3:20 PM

Count me in with Mary, Michael, and Nigel-- if it isn't just "product placement" a la Hollywood, the use of brand names and ephemera can supply useful data and detail.

Of course brand names need not be ephemeral. To ride a particular hobbyhorse (fine guns) -- without looking it up, I believe that Purdey's of London (shotguns) has been around since the 1830's-- and is synonymous with quality. It MEANS someting if a character in fiction has a Purdey. He would likely be of a certain class, conservative, wealthy but not showy-- you get the idea....

Posted by: Steve Bodio on March 7, 2006 8:56 PM

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