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?