Before I get into how to use brand names, I want you to ask yourself whether you actually need to use brand names in your fiction. There are really only a couple of reasons to include them in the first place. Typically, the actual brand is less important than the way your characters feel about the object you’re talking about. Your purpose is to show the reader the world as your character sees it, right? Unless he’s focused on the brand name, why include one?
It might be crucial to include the make of car your character drives if he derives some part of his identity from that sort of thing, and if that detail is important to the story. If he has come down firmly on the Ford side in the pickup truck wars, and if that’s part of the story, then by all means include it. If that doesn’t turn up in the story, then it’s not a necessary detail for your reader’s purposes, and you should consider cutting it. There might be a reason (other than brevity) that you have to say Ferrari instead of “low-slung Italian sports car,” but you’re going to have to convince me that reason exists.
Regardless of how important the details are, name-dropping is a bad idea. Every so often, I see manuscripts laden with brand names tacked to almost everything the character touches. It looks a bit like product placement. It’s clunky and unnecessary. Inevitably, I end up cutting a great many of those names.
Often, a deft description eliminates the necessity for name dropping. If I mentioned the flash of red visible at the sole of my character’s shoe, I’ve described the way she’s moving and hinted that she’s wearing Louboutins at the same time. I’ve shown you Louboutin without telling you. But be careful. The mark I’m using belongs to Louboutin, so I can’t make up some other brand with that signature sole.
That paragraph, by the way, is an argument for ducking the brand name altogether if you can. See how cumbersome it gets toward the end? Trust your reader. If she doesn’t pick up that you’re talking about the Louboutin brand, she will get from your description that your character is wearing something expensive. On the other hand, if you say Louboutin, and she doesn’t know what a Louboutin is, that’s going to be a problem, right?
If I haven’t talked you out of using the brand name yet, here’s what you need to do with them.
Your primary concern is to get the name right. Get the apostrophe in the right place for Jack Daniel’s. Hyphenate the Crock-Pot. Capitalize Coke. You may have to spend a little time double checking these, but I tried to talk you out of doing this in the first place, remember?
Now that you’ve locked yourself in to that one brand name, you’ll need to get the details right. Does that car actually come in a hybrid? Does that shoe come with an ankle strap? If the answer’s no, and you insisted on a brand, now you have to find another brand. People notice details like that, and no one’s happy when you get them wrong.
There are a couple of legal issues to consider, too. It is my specific intention not to discuss them here because such a discussion is awfully close to legal advice. I do recommend (in a non-lawyerly way) Mark Fowler’s blog post entitled “Can I Mention Brand Name Products in My Fiction?” His treatment of these issues is concise and well written.
Consider your alternatives. Be careful. And remember, if there’s a way for you to get out of this without name-dropping, it’s okay to go for it.
**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style every month. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.