“He drinks WHAT?” Product placement in novels

At one point near the beginning of my work-in-progress (a contemporary romance set in a small mountain town in California), my hero sits in a greasy-spoon cafe and thinks about how much he misses being a Starbucks customer.

I didn’t put that thought in his head on a whim. You see, he’s a small-business owner, so he tries to support other small businesses as much as possible. He’s a sensitive guy with strong moral character (even if he totally screws the pooch when it comes to his heroine).

I’ve been getting some feedback from my husband and crit partners about this scene, and it’s funny the different reactions they’ve had. Two of my crit partners said things along the lines of: “Man, I know how he feels about Starbucks! Love that place.”

My husband (a lefty intellectual) asked why I was advertising for Starbucks, and whether I’d get paid for product placement.

Sometimes as writers, especially those of us writing contemporary novels, we use brand names as a sort-of shorthand. When I needed to think of an international company synonymous with taking over the world, I thought of Starbucks.

If my story had been set in the UK, I might’ve used the name of a supermarket chain (which shall remain nameless here, in the interests of not being sued) which is often the subject of documentaries because it seems to open supermarkets across the street from independent shops that can’t compete. There’s lots of worry here that small towns are becoming generic because big-name companies suck the life out of them.

In historicals, Ye Olde Name for products can help plant the setting in a reader’s imagination. Think about all the gratuitous capital letters and superlatives companies used to use when trying to sell The World’s Most Perfect Jar of Oil Ever Created, Known For Its Laxative Powers And Abilities To Regenerate Hair On Balding Gentlemen’s Heads. Okay, I made that one up, but I love it when historical writers introduce me to an authentic (or authentic-sounding) product.

But that shorthand won’t work for all readers. In fact, like with my husband, it can backfire and make a character less sympathetic.

Okay, my husband isn’t the demographic I’m looking for, so here’s another example.

I read one book where the hero and heroine were at a bar and the hero took a sip of his Coors Light. That’s the only kind of beer my dad drinks, so immediately I’m associating the hero with my dad. The following sex scene made me feel a bit ill.

It doesn’t have to be a brand-name product, either. When my husband read one of my manuscripts, which has a British hero, he pointed out the fact that the hero drank ale. “Ale is culturally associated with a certain kind of person in Britain,” he told me. “I drink ale, but from what I know of your hero, he sounds like a lager drinker.”

In other words, if that ms is ever published in Britain, readers would either think I don’t know much about beer (I don’t) or I don’t know much about British culture. They might be forgiving and think that his choice of ale makes him a more complex character, but since I only mention it once in the story, there’s a danger it sounds more like I don’t fully understand who my hero is.

Another example: fortunately, there aren’t many romance novels where the hero wears tighty-whities. It seems to be a truth universally acknowledged that these are not sexy – universally acknowledged, that is, with the exception of my dad. After spending every Saturday of my childhood folding his clean underwear (mostly because I was too embarrassed to let him fold mine, and we didn’t want to waste water by doing separate loads), tighty-whities are firmly associated in my mind with my dad. I once had to stop reading a book that was otherwise decent because the hero wore the same undies as Dad.

(God, I hope my dad never finds this blog. Though I guess he’d have to learn how to turn on a computer first.)

Have you ever read a book where the product placement turned you off? Or used a brand name in your own writing to help create a sense of character or setting?

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10 Comments

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10 responses to ““He drinks WHAT?” Product placement in novels

  1. OK. I just learned entirely too much about your family. At least none of them wear Underoos, right?

    But as to the question: Since I write historicals I mostly make up my own stuff, although I do use Levi Strauss and Stetson as brand names, mostly because they’re universal western wear and were around even in the period I wrote. As to contemporaries? Car brands. Having been raised in a car culture which is rife with car envy/identity, If the hero drives any of a number of styles of cars, I immediately make judgements–mostly bad. Yes, I now. I’m shallow.

    • Katrina

      No Underoos that I know of, Kaki. At least, not since my brother grew up (okay, fortunately I don’t know what kind of undies he wears now, but I’m assuming they’re not Underoos).

      Yeah, car brands have all kinds of connotations, don’t they? And if you think you’re shallow, try this one: my grandpa apparently proposed to my grandma on their first date. He popped the question when they got into his car, and she answered, “That depends on whether you plan on keeping this car.”

      Ouch.

  2. Was it a really big car? You know what they say about a man’s car. Or is it his feet? His thumbs? I forget. Car appreciation hits us on so many levels. Lust, envy, disgust–can a JC Penney’s shirt do all that? I think not.

    • Katrina

      Ew, gross, Kaki – that’s my GRANDPA you’re talking about!

      No, a JC Penney’s shirt can’t do all that. Cars are powerful things, especially to us Americans. Since you write Westerns, does that mean your heroines check out the hero’s stallion before committing? You know what they say about a man’s horse.

      Or is it just that men wished they said that?

      • OK. Now that’s uncalled for. You realize you can still be hanged in Texas for stealing a man’s horse, much less making unfavorable comparisons to say, another man’s horse. But then, that’s in Texas, and you know how inflated everything in Texas is. (And please note I used the correct conjugation of the word “hang”.)

        As for your Grandpa…well, your Grandma married him, so I guess that says a lot about both of them. Bless their hearts.

        • Katrina

          Good thing you know proper grammar. I’d hate for your comment to be misconstrued. 🙂

  3. LOL–still laughing about the underwear. But great post! I have an urban fantasy series set in New Orleans, and I use a lot of place names (and product names) in that book. My character drinks Barq’s root beer, for example, and they knock back a lot of Abita beer–both are New Orleans-based brands. I use those type of products, plus real settings such as the Napoleon House or the French Quarter, as a reminder of my setting, which is virtually a character in itself.

    I’d never thought of it as “product placement,” although in a way I guess it is. And if Abita and Barq’s and Zapp’s want to send me endorsement checks. I’m there 🙂

    • Katrina

      Suzanne, I love it when authors use products to give a flavor of the setting. Have you seen O Brother, Where Art Thou? The scene that sticks in my mind most clearly is when Ulysses is trying to get Dapper Dan hair gel, and the little shop in the town he’s in sells a different brand. So after arguing with the shopkeeper, he says, “Well, it didn’t look like a two-horse town, but try finding a decent hair jelly.”

      Fantastic line. Tells me everything I need to know about the place and about Ulysses as a character.

      Maybe you could do some kind of marketing thing with the beers. Though, I guess it’d be a pretty limited audience.

  4. Robin Hillyer Miles

    You and Kaki are cracking me up.

    It drives me nuts when someone uses hung instead of hanged. I always say “horses are hung, people are hanged.” Which, of course, stops them in their tracks as they process what I’ve said and then they go, “Ewwww.”

    And my mother only dated my father to begin with because he had a hot car. Really. She turned him down until she saw his car.

    Who wouldn’t turn down an older guy who sat behind you in college English class, always played with your hair and during the second week of class said to you, “I’m looking for someone to be the mother of Heidi, my daughter.”

    My mom said, “You have a daughter?”

    My dad said, “No I’m looking for her. I want a little girl named Heidi who will have blonde hair and a cleft in her chin and you are the perfect candidate.”

    At which point I hope my mom said, “Push off weirdo.”

    But Dad was persistent. And he drove her home two hours in the snow when she was homesick. Oh … and he had a cool car.

    Their first child was/is named Heidi and though her hair didn’t stay blonde for long she does have the cleft in her chin.

    And he wore tighty-whities — which I will never, ever purchase for my husband!

    Oh, but to answer your question. I don’t mind product placement in a book if it helps set time, place and is recognizable by regular joes. If the author uses an obscure or ubber-elite, status-waving product then the book becomes a flinger. (I fling it across the room and hope I don’t hit anything breakable.)

    • Katrina

      Robin, that’s a fantastic first-meet story. And – even though I never intended this post to be known as the Dad’s Undies post, thanks for sharing. I wonder if tighty-whities used to be cool, or if men just give up at some point – sort of like women do when they buy beige nylon granny-pants.

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