5.07.2006

Miss Snark Brand: $nark

Your Snarkiness,

When I riffled through the book section of my local bookmonger megastore recently, I noticed a trend. Every book seemed to obsessively mention A LOT of products by name. Nobody orders whiskey anymore, it has to be Jim Beam, stirred with a promotional AT&T swizel
stick.

I know Hollywood has for years sold space in their movies to products (ET and Reese's Pieces etc.). Are publishers inserting these references based on deals with these manufacturers, or has some evil writing teacher convinced a whole generation of innocent writers that using product names rather than real English is somehow good writing?


Or maybe the writers think they'll start getting free cases of Jim Beam by having their character splash it on his tie as he engages in a car chase? Are we going to have characters who say, "Hold on a second while I visit the American Standard?" Despite what it might say about the writers, I hope it's not the publishers doing it.


Well I don't think payola is involved in things like this

or this

or even this

but this was.

I do not think the use of brand names is ipso facto bad writing. Here's a piece from the Wikipedia article on John O'Hara's Appointment in Samarra

In the 1930s it was unusual to mention brand names in fiction. Biographer Frank MacShane says that O'Hara wanted his book to have a similar authenticity to those of F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom O'Hara admired as a writer who "could come right out and say 'Locomobile' instead of 'high-powered motor car.'" MacShane says O'Hara "filled Appointment in Samarra with the names of popular songs, politicians, sports figures and cars of the period." English (the protagonist) is a car dealer, and O'Hara assumes that readers will understand the social distinctions between a Cadillac, a LaSalle, a Buick, and a "Chevvy" (which O'Hara spelled with two V's). But beyond cars, the novel is full of other brand names, which O'Hara obviously expects to convey subtle social meanings to the reader:


He reached over [in his car] and picked up the hat beside him.... The brim did not snap down in front. It was a Stetson, and Julian wore Herbert Johnson hats from Brooks Brothers." You would look at Mrs. Waldo Wallace Walker, dressed in a brown sweater with a narrow leather belt, and a tweed skirt from Mann and Dilks, and Scotch grain shoes with fringed tongues..."


There is a line in an old Patrick Dennis novel (I think The Genius, one of the best novels of all time EVER) that describes a character in a Peck & Peck suit. It conveys everything you need to know about the woman. (Of course, now that no one except Miss Snark knows what a Peck & Peck suit is, it's not as good a description, but Miss Snark is resigned to being the last person on the Snarksdale train wearing kid gloves to lunch at the Automat too).

Were you to describe Miss Snark in written form it would be much more evocative to say she sucks up Cafe Bustelo rather than merely sucking up java juice. Saying she sucks up Folgers isn't quite the same thing either, not that Miss Snark would ever do such a thing...even in her Peck&Peck suit.

23 comments:

Feemus said...

One can't imagine Ulysses or American Psycho w/o the "product placements." Brand names are essential to these works. I think it quite unlikely that Cristal paid Ellis to have Bateman drink the stuff as he hacked folks to bits.

Consumerism and brand consciousness are part of our culture.

People are branded. A Jim Beam drinker is different from a Knob Creek drinker. Bushmills vs. Jameson conveys even more information: about class, politics, and religion.

You are what you order.

That we conceive of identity as the sum of our purchases is a sickness in our society, but reflecting it in literature doesn't nec. suggest corruption.

Anonymous said...

Genius by Patrick Dennis! Yes! I still have my old hardcover to read occasionally, particularly when my writing is getting solemn to the point of dour.

Max said...

I don't think product placement in books is too widespread, but it has happened before. There's also the BMW audiobooks promotion, which is pretty obvious product placement.

Anonymous said...

But many bad writers use it as a cheap way to describe something or someone, and it gets boring awfully fast...

BTW Miss Snark, I know what a Peck & Peck suit is, because I wear vintage clothing. I also wear vintage kid gloves, preferably in elbow length. There are some of us still out there!

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. I do remember Peck and Peck. I think I onced owned a Peck and Peck suit. And I do own a copy of Genius (although the pages appear ready to crumble). But mayhaps the extended description of Caroline Drexel Morris Starr Strawbridge near the end is the epitome of identifying the person with the product?

Anyone want elbow-length kid gloves?

jta said...

Brand names are part of the fabric of reality, and as such we can use them to transmit meaning--but the writer is making a bet. These things change; they disappear and undergo "mission creep," or "temporal dissonance" as time and events march on. So, while it's fine to use them, it's probably safer not to rely on them too much.

Think: What kind of person would "flip a fresh deck of Luckies onto the table?" Mike Hammer wouldn't have thought twice about it; today we would have immediate doubts about such a person.

Or, "Malin's Dark Ceylon." Joyce knew exactly the kind of person who'd drink Malin's. I don't.

As for out and out payola? You should be so lucky.

Sherry Decker said...

From what I've picked up at writer's conferences, it is perfectly fine to use brand names in writing, as long as you capitalize the name. I think it does add authenticity as long as it isn't overdone.

Harry Connolly said...

... using product names rather than real English is somehow good writing?

If product names aren't "real" English, what language are they? Fake English? Brandenese? Advertisian?

Dave Kuzminski said...

Of course, if your characters happen to be writers or know writers, you should always mention the Miss Snark, Evil Editor, Writer Beware, and P&E brands. ;)

Shalanna Collins said...

But it does date your work. People will have no idea who Britney Spears was fifty years from now (if we're lucky), just as they don't remember Peck and Peck and have trouble figuring out what's meant by "Luckies" if they don't have parents who used to mutter, "Lucky Strike Means Fine Terbacky," whenever they saw L.S.M.F.T.

They'll have to pick it up from the context, the way we have to today when we read some classic authors. This irritates some readers, though.

I prefer making up my own brand names. Yep, you have to figure out what it is from context and similarity of name. This gets me into trouble with all those people who want to read about currently popular brands. But remember, brands you think of as Eternal and Unending today will be gone tomorrow. Is your novel going to last? Who can say, but it has a better chance if it doesn't become somewhat incomprehensible.

NL Gassert said...

I think it’s okay to drop brand names on occasion, every now and again. The problem with brand names is the recognition. It’s supposed to make a statement, but that only works if the reader is familiar with the brand.

I read chick lit recently that was littered with expensive shoe brands. I didn’t know a single one of them. For all I know, the heroine could have gotten her shoes from the thrift shop down the street or maybe her local Payless. And even if I know …

What about Dutch readers? Will Chinese fans recognize the brand name and its significance? Can Turkish reader identify the brand for the clue it is?

Okay, so not all of us are writing international bestsellers, but you never know….

Patrice Michelle said...

I think using brand names helps give a "flavor" to one's writing, but I also believe in using them sparingly because 1) Less is more and 2) Having too many in your book will make them stand out to the point of "dating" your story.

Dave Kuzminski said...

Well, of course the Chinese readers will recognize those brands. They probably manufactured many of them under sub-contracts. ;)

NL Gassert said...

DAVE, that's so true. I didn't think of that.

Remodeling Repartee said...

I recently had a partial rejected for in part the use of "fancy brands," mostly interior design elements; fabrics, sofas, plumbing fixtures. But my protag is an interior designer in LOS ANGELES--geez. So I got knocked for being authentic. It is part of the culture, part of our times, and often part of some of our characters' identities; the sad creatures. P.G. Wodehouse was also a master of just-enough product placement.

Anonymous said...

I used the Starbucks brand, hoping I'd get a lifetime free supply. Didn't work. Other than a few car brands, which you almost have to do so you don't say, he drove a large sedan throughout the entire book, you have to drop a few brand names.

But I recently read a chick lit that was all about brands. The first couple chapters were amusing. Then it got very tedious. I finally quit reading it, because I became very bored trying to picture each brand as it was mentioned.

A. J. Luxton said...

I have been told by a not-entirely-competent writing teacher that a reference to the music of Kate Bush dated my work and was no good. I firmly believe this is advice the like of said-book-isms.

A detail, even one I know little of, beats a gaping hole where detail should be. If I'd lived all my life in Alaska, I'd have never seen a palm tree. But should all mentions of palm trees be replaced by the generic 'foliage', leaving readers to fill in what they choose? No.

I will go on mentioning Kate Bush and palm trees and, should I be writing in a certain kind of voice in a modern-day setting, brand names. Because they're there, and every pertinent detail one takes out will make the set look more like cardboard and paint.

Anyone who doesn't know the brand name can probably wiggle it out from context. Anyone who does, and sees it's appropriate, will have that little flash of recognition that brings a story into sharp focus.

Of course, one can overdo it. James Bond was always walking around in his Rolex driving various makes of Italian sports cars and commenting on fashion designers. Fleming used brand names to a rather silly extreme, which I'm guessing had to do with the whole escapist wish-fulfillment fantasy aspect of the books.

Anonymous said...

I remember reading that Neil Simon once said that "Give me a Bromo" is funnier than "Give me a bicarbonate of soda"...

lizzie26 said...

Stephen King uses brand names. Not a lot, but enough, which is what another poster (Patrice) said: "less is more."

Dhewco said...

Personally, I thought that big Xenadrine truck in Terminator 3 was over the top...I have always heard that such placements in novels will date your book and undermine it's value.


(Like mentioning Trek, or Star Wars, or any TV show in your contemporary novel...I guess I've been told wrong...have I? BTW, did you notice I love ellipses?)

LOL

David

Miss P AKA Her Royal Cliqueness said...

I do the same thing as Shalanna. I make up brand names. I also make up slang.

However, I also write YA. So maybe my readers wouldn't be as annoyed by the lack of a more concrete brand description.

Personally, when I read a book that has too much product placement it takes me out of the story. It distracts me to no end, because the excessive name dropping becomes a character.

Debra Kemp said...

I haven't subscribed to "Writer's Digest" magazine in years, but I distinctly recall articles showing up there on a regular basis about using brand names in writing; and that it was considered copyright infringement. Have the times changed, that corporations are more forgiving of that sort of thing now? Anyone else remember the ads for "Correction fluid" v "Wite-out", "In-line Skates" v "Rollerblades", and "facial tissue" v "Kleenex"?

Couldn't resist the veri-word: kewjo. A varient spelling of a Stephen King novel perhaps?

Anonymous said...

Patrick Dennis and P.G. Wodehouse. Ah, the classics that make one snort Pepsi through one's nose. Seriously, for anyone who hasn't had the pleasure, both these admittedly dated authors are still laugh out loud funny when they're racing across the page in top form. I think I'll go dust off some books....