Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Opinion — The Side Effects Of Product Placement

Below is an updated blog post from a couple of years ago.

The extinct Studebaker
From time to time, I’ve been chastised for using brand names in my writing. I often identify the brand of beer, the make of car and, where I can make positive or at least neutral observations about the place, the name of the restaurant where the characters dine. For me, what a person chooses in his or her life helps define the character of the person I’m describing. For example, one of my characters in the San Francisco series, Noah Lang, drives a beat-up, old Mercedes. Here is a man who likes quality but can’t afford it. His specific choice — it’s kind of ratty looking — suggests that he really doesn’t care what other people think about him. He is comfortable with who he is. I could have said that he drives a “beat-up, old luxury car.” But I want to help the reader come to terms quickly. What if I used the generic “luxury car,” the reader rightfully thinks, “Could be an old Cadillac.” Well, no, that wouldn’t do what I want the description to do. I like old Cadillacs, but they are big and showy. Old Mercedes aren’t, and neither is the character.
The compact  Princess telephone
I can tell you I’ve never received a penny for naming a product, never so much as a free cup of coffee for mentioning a restaurant. Most writers pass through life anonymously — especially those of us who live well below the New York Times bestseller list. No one knows who I am. However, in an era of paid product placement, I can’t blame a reader for being suspicious of brand names appearing in the story. And it is possible to write by saying “she lit a cigarette,” or “he jumped in his convertible,” and get the job done. But truthfully, did anyone else wince when it showed James Bond driving a BMW? Could Rockford have driven a Chevette? A woman wearing a Hermes scarf or a man driving a Dodge Ram provides more telling glimpses of those character’s lives than using either the simple “scarf” or “pickup truck” or a dozen adjectives. Using a brand name can be an effective shortcut and make it real to the reader.
Again, there are no rules, only choices. A reader might have a greater sense of the timelessness of the story if those kinds of specifics are spared. Twenty years from now there may be no such thing as a Blackberry. Culturally, though, might it not be particularly rich for the writer to reflect the times with greater specificity? And would the potentially banned brand name require writers to replace Blackberry with “a versatile communications device?"

They say that if you look real hard you can still find them.
UPDATE:  In the short time since this was published, the Blackberry has nearly become an anachronism, which shows how the use of products can date a work and do so quickly.  This can be good or bad.  For me, I like to freeze the story in the time period it was created, though a young, new reader of the early Shanahans might find it hard to relate to such a world. Stone Veil was published in pre-smartphone 1989.  For me though, the real danger of using real products is that the mention is possibly a tacit endorsement or, at minimum, provides increasing awareness of the product.  And this means I may be promoting a product from a company that I believe is, to put it dramatically, doing evil things to civilization.  I hadn’t spent much time thinking about this early on.  I had no idea then that there were corporations or individuals whose lobbying budgets are bigger than the GNP of many countries. Do I really want to boost the sales (however miniscule my power to do so may be) of companies like Nestle or tycoons like the Koch brothers?

Then again, reality is reality. Most of us don’t know that when we bought this or that product we were contributing to the destruction of the rain forest, causing farmers in India to kill themselves or supporting the inhumane treatment of animals, let alone helping companies purchase legislators who will do their bidding. Nor do our characters.  But the issue is worth thinking about.

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