Saturday, November 20, 2010

Brand names

When I first started writing confessions in the 1980s, I quickly realized that editors deftly removed brand names from the stories they published.

"I drove my Rambler to Sambo's and ordered a Royal Crown Cola to drink while studying the menu" became "I drove my car to a chain restaurant and ordered a cola to drink while studying the menu."

In the belief that the less work a manuscript requires prior to publication increases--however minutely--the odds of the manuscript being accepted, I learned to write fiction without using brand names.

During the past few years things have changed. Confession editors are no longer excising all brand names from confessions prior to publication, and I recently read a confession that had so many brand names in it that I thought I was reading a shopping list and not a short story.

So I wonder which serves a story better: frequent use of brand names or complete removal of brand names?

I think use of brand names can be a crutch, a way for writers to create a character using shorthand--after all, a woman who wears Levi's and Polo shirts is quite different than a woman who dresses in Dolce & Gabbana and Manolo Blahnik--instead of making the character come alive through words and actions.

At the same time, use of brand names can date a story. Readers significantly younger than me may not even recognize the three brand names in my example above:

The Rambler was manufactured by American Motors, back when the U.S. had four major automobile manufacturing companies. The last Rambler was manufactured in 1969. American Motors was purchased by Chrysler in 1987 and renamed Eagle.

Sambo's was a chain of 1,200 restaurants that went bankrupt in the early 1980s and, apparently, only the original restaurant, opened in 1957, still exists.

Royal Crown Cola may be better known today as RC Cola.

If it's important to set a story in a particular time and place (pairing that RC cola with a Moonpie would likely set a story in the South in the 1950s), then brand names may be a valuable addition to a story, but if time and place is less important than the story itself, use of brand names would detract from the story and would be especially distracting to future readers unfamiliar with the brand names.

So, even though confession editors seem more open to the use of brand names, may I suggest that brand names be used judiciously and only when their use truly enhances a story.

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