Monday, January 02, 2012

Generic or Name Brands?

What I'm reading: Because of You, by Jessica Scott (Nook)

If you haven't read my weekend post, please take a minute to check it out, because there's giveaway information you don't want to miss. My Newsletter will go out on Wednesday, and while you can still get an extra entry if you sign up after that date, you won't get the newsletter until the next issue comes out in April.

Today is one of those strange days. It's January 2nd, which is usually a "normal" day. But because New Year's Day fell on a Sunday, it's a holiday. But yesterday was the "real" New Year's Day. I'm confused! There's something just not "right" about not having the Rose Parade on television, not to mention the Bowl Games. But the NFL has commandeered Sundays—or so we think. But before that, back in 1890, the Tournament of Roses organizers established the precedent that it would never be held on a Sunday. Why? Because they were afraid it might scare the horses tied up outside the church. (I'm not making this up, honest. I'm not that clever. See for yourself.)

So, I'm feeling that there are probably a lot of you out there who aren't into your normal Monday routines, either. I thank you for stopping by.

While watching so many football games (or just having them on in the background—I'm not a faithful "watcher"), the repeated commercials quickly grated. While I grasp the concept that there's no way these manufacturers could create enough commercials so they're all different, hearing the same ones over and over had me hitting the mute button. The same thing happened in a couple of books I read recently.

Which brings me to "product placement" in our novels. Most of my publishers don't like using brand names. One makes its authors list every trademarked product and the page it's on so their legal department can make sure they're not going to get sued. Another goes so far as to list every single one in a "disclaimer" at the front of the book. The temptation exists to make up or avoid brand names. However, you still have to look them up in the trademark database, because a made-up name could actually be real!

In my mind, using brand names serves a purpose. They're quickly identifiable by the reader. If I refer to a "cream-filled chocolate wafer cookie" or a "doughnut shaped toasted oat cereal", you're probably going to stop, re-read, regroup, and then convert those descriptions to Oreos and Cheerios. One editor I spoke with said she'd never let "Walmart" through. She'd change it to "mega discount store". For the above reasons, I'm glad she didn't edit my manuscript for Danger in Deer Ridge. Walmart, in addition to being the only "large discount store" where the book is set, has that immediate image.

Cars are another one. I use brand names because they also say something about the character. A snazzy red sports car doesn't say the same thing to me as 'Vette or Porsche.

In When Danger Calls, my hero came into a bar and ordered "Jack". I skirted the issue and never referred to it as "Jack Daniels", but when the heroine wanted to upgrade his drink, I did refer to Knob Creek. And I asked the company if it was okay. They thought it was cool that I wanted to use their drink in the book.

In Where Danger Hides, I set a scene at Denny's. Not because it was important that it actually take place at a Denny's, but because that one word would create the right atmosphere for most American readers. Again, I spoke to Denny's legal department and got them to send permission to the publisher. They thought it was cool, too.

One caveat. If you're using something real, Don't Have Bad Stuff Happen. You don't want to have someone get food poisoning at Denny's, or have your character get drunk on Knob Creek and kill someone in a traffic accident. And definitely watch the dead bodies in real public places.

Oh – and why I started this post to begin with. I did get bugged by constant references to brand names in a couple of books I read recently. Both were cell phones. One author's character always referred to her Blackberry, and the other to her iPhone. I have a cell phone. It happens to be a Motorola Droid 3, but if I think about it in any context, it's my cell phone. Is there something special about iPhones and Blackberrys (or is it Blackberries?) that makes their owners think of them by brand name? How do you think of your cell phone? Or your car?

Tomorrow, my first guest of 2012 is Susan Paturzo, who's talking about her writing goals for the year.

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Ray said...

My opinion on brand names changes with the book. The way you use it is perfectly OK. It is when they are used to show that the character is cool that the OVER use of brand names gets to me. When every other page contains a brand name it gets a little old. The use of Walmart always brings out negative thoughts in my mind. I have such a dislike for a company that started out as selling all American products to one that sells mostly Chinese products. I get a newsletter about government recalls. Nearly every recalled product is from China. The only electronic products I have had to return because they don't work as advertised are from Walmart. Still the movie about a woman who got married at Walmart was one I have seen several times because I am a big fan of Ashley Judd.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Terry,

I've changed some brand names to generics for the same reason you have, because the publisher is nervous about them. If you check and make certain the trademark is there, I don't see that there should be a problem. Really, it's good product advertising for the brand name.

Jacqueline Seewald

Terry Odell said...

Ray, you do bring up a valid point. Everyone has hot buttons, and you never know what's going to push one.

Jacqueline - I'd say I have a mix in my books. I like to root readers in reality, yet we can't get too "real" -- in my WIP I've created a building in a real town, because I don't want anything bad to happen in a real building. I'm sure some readers will say, "Oh, but there is no such building." But we write fiction; we get to make stuff up.

Kathy said...

I used Diet Coke in my story because I drink it and my heroine drinks it. But brand names shoul dbe okay unless you are doing something or saying something negative. I guess everyone could drink a bottle of water and coffee or tea but I don't drink coffee or tea and water is something I have to make myself drink-lol. I love the taste of the carbonation of my Diet Coke first thing in the morning. Just me and my silliness though. :-)

Terry Odell said...

Kathy - I have no problems with brand names -- as long as it doesn't look like the author is getting a kickback for every time they're used!

Marilyn Yarbrough said...

The way a brand name product is portrayed also makes a difference. If the main character says, "I drink Diet Coke because Diet Pepsi tastes like crap, or it has illegal drugs in it, or it will make me sterile..." Well, you get the idea. Don’t use a product in a negative way, or you just might be sued.

Steven J Pemberton said...

Has a novelist or their publisher ever been sued for trademark infringement? I suppose publishers know what they can get away with...

I don't mind brand names in fiction, as long as they don't occur so often that it sounds as though the author is getting paid for them. They can be a useful shorthand for establishing a character or setting, but they only work if the reader knows them. I live in the UK, where we don't have Denny's, so I have no idea what sort of mental picture I'm meant to get from that.

Terry Odell said...

Good points, Steve. I'm assuming the publishers have had to deal with potential lawsuits or they wouldn't be sending our information to their legal departments (rather than editors) when they have 'brand name' policy.

And I totally agree that where you live can impact how you interpret what the author says. I'm still trying to find out what "fairy cakes" are.

Here in the US, there are a lot of regional differences as well. Soda, Pop, Cola--and in some places any carbonated soft drink is called "Coke" no matter what it is.

Terry Odell said...

Marilyn - yes, and it's the publisher who's likely to be on the receiving end of the lawsuit (unless you're indie publishing)

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I use name brands when I write traditionally published books and generic for my self-pub! :)

Terry Odell said...

Eliazabeth, that's probably smart in case a manufacturer takes exception with usage. Let the publisher deal with it.

Karen C said...

Interesting post. I guess I haven't thought too much about brand names and can't think of a situation where I was bugged by one.

Maryannwrites said...

Happy New Year, Terry. Catching up on some blogs a little late, but liked this one a lot. I agree about the specific brand names of cars and places and even drinks can add a lot to a story and to a character. I had to fight to keep some of them in my books with the same publisher, but when I pointed out that nothing bad was associated with the branded items, the editor gave the okay.

Sarah Butland said...

I agree with most of the above comments in that I want the specifics of what a character is drinking, eating, where he's going so I can relate.

As long as the same product isn't used throughout the entire story I simply read over it briefly. It's typically such a minor element of the tale but if it's description instead of a name I do get caught up and enjoy the book less.

Terry Odell said...

Maryann -- it's nice when an editor agrees (although I think the legal department has the final word if there's any controversy)

Sarah - yes, that's what bothered me about the two books with specific names for cell phones. Then again, maybe those two brands ARE thought of by name by their owners. Nobody responded to that part of my blog.