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PRODUCT PLACEMENT

How much thought do you give to the products your characters use?

A) Not much? B) Somewhat? C) The story hinges on it? D) None of the above. 

Does your hero drink Coke, Pepsi or simply a soda? Does it matter? Will Pepsi drinkers be offended if your hero gulps a Coke? Will your heroine wipe her tears and blow her nose (hopefully in that order) on a tissue or a Kleenex? What kind of character drinks a beer, a Bud Light, a Corona?

I love to add real products to my stories. Spam. Trojan. Silly Putty (not all together, of course). And not because the manufacturers pay me to add them. If only. They’d probably be more likely to pay me to not mention them. Maybe I’d be better off using vague references to ambiguous products, but these products conjure an image in my mind and hopefully the reader’s mind too.

When it comes to automobiles, I’ve got to admit I have a soft spot or a hot spot or a wet spot for a cool car. I’ve been advised to have my characters drive an SUV, sedan, compact or sports car. Nope. Not gonna do it. I prefer to put my hero’s tight buns in a car befitting his personality and income bracket. I keep a copy of Auto Trader on hand to choose the perfect ride. Same goes for my heroine. Would she drive a convertible Mustang or a VW Bug? New or classic? What color? Is she more of a Prius gal, out to save the world one mile at a time? A car says so much about a person.

Or let’s say as a child, your reader became violently ill after eating too many Screaming Yellow Zonkers (true story – happened to me) and your villain is popping those delish candy coated popcorns. What if the reader puts the book down (to puke), never to pick it up again? Will your Hershey’s Kiss eating reader be able to identify with your Godiva chocolate eating heroine?

I’ve heard people say it’s better to stay neutral. Specifics can date your writing or jolt the reader out of your story. What if your hero strolls into the trendy nightclub wearing a Members Only jacket and acid wash jeans and they fall out of fashion? Oh, wait. I think that already happened. But these days your favorite product is one bad PR nightmare away from going bankrupt, falling out of favor or being swallowed by a bigger conglomerate. Sometimes they reinvent themselves and make a comeback after you/I insinuate their lameness.

What’s your take?

34 responses to “PRODUCT PLACEMENT”

  1. Very good question. I, too, have heard you should keep it vague so as not to offend someone.

    I’m trying to think of instances in my stories … my heroes/heroines drive specific cars (Meg has a pale green VW bug; Brad drives a Camaro; Mike has a Trans Am and Bree drives a Jeep). A lot of them have a favorite beverage, too, like Guinness or Schnapps.

    But then I tend to make up restaurants rather than send them to McD’s or Olive Garden.

    Guess that puts me squarely in the undecided camp. Sorry I’m no help at all. 😉

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      Sometimes I’m undecided too. It’s like when they say “pick your battles”. When I first started writing at Ellora’s Cave we had to list every Tradmarked item we mentioned. If that doesn’t cure you from using them, nothing will. Thankfully we don’t have to do that anymore.

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  2. Kristina Mathews says:

    Sometimes you just gotta use the brand name. I mean really, how else do you describe Jell-o? The jiggly gelatinous dessert your mom made you eat when you were sick as a kid? Unless you’re trying to up your word count for NaNo, it’s kind of cumbersome.

    My characters drink Coke or Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper and Anchor Steam. They drive Jeeps or Toyotas. They wear Levi’s. Just don’t ask me about the shoes, because I have no idea about fashion. Which is why they wear Levi’s. I figure any designer that’s been around as long as the state of California will probably be around by the time I’m published. I just hope I can say the same about the state of California.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      My heroes almost always wear 501s. I love a button fly.

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      • Kristina Mathews says:

        I miss 501s. Too many guys seem to wear thier pants too baggy. It looks like they’re wearing a saggy diaper. Not that they need to be 80’s rock star tight. But a well fitting pair of 501s- yes please.

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        • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

          We are in agreement. I don’t want to see a guy’s drawers unless…well…unless I want to see his drawers.

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  3. Great thought-provoking post, Kelly!

    For the most part I use more generic references to products because you’re right about brands becoming outdated. However, I’m very specific about CARS because they say so much about the character. I will also use brand names when I’m trying to give a sense of a character’s income bracket. For example, in Hypnotic Seduction, my billionaire CEO hero, Jordan, spins a Mont Blanc pen like a baton between his fingers, wears an Omega watch, and drives a Lamborghini.

    I never mention a beer by name because they go in and out of vogue faster than the speed of light.

    Truthfully, if any reader gets upset because my character is drinking Coke instead of Pepsi, I think I prefer not to have them as a reader because they’re evidently total wackos.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      Ha! Total wackos make the world go round. I may regret it some day, but I love using song titles too. I just avoid names of singers and actors because those people’s careers are totally unstable. Who’s hot and who’s not can change on a daily basis.

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  4. Liz Talley says:

    I use specific products when they’re needed, and sometimes they are. Sometime rich chocolate is no substitute for Godiva. Brands capture people, allow them specific, tangible assosiations so they can relate. And sometimes it sounds better to say the product. My publisher lets me keep them as long as it is being cast in a good light. Otherwise, I have to go generic.

    Funny you should mention two things in this post that recently apply to me – just wrote an Aston Martin into one book and I spent a good deal of time drooling over the online brochures. If I even hit it big….

    And my son just came back from camp where he ate an entire bag of Sour Patch kids (big version to share with cabin mates) and puked on the soccer field. I asked him why he ate the whole bag and he said, “I started eating them and couldn’t stop. They were so delicious.” Okay. Right. Now I have a new scene for a book. LOL.

    Nice post!

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  5. Rita Henuber says:

    Spam. Trojan. Silly Putty. SNORT! Oh Lord how my mind went on those three words together.
    Totally agree with you about cars. They are an extension of the owner’s personality. I think liquor brand names in the right places make a statement. I guess I’m really agreeing with what Liz says, brands do capture people.
    That said, I don’t want to be hit so frequently with brand names that by the end of the book I feel bruised.

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  6. Beth Langston says:

    I tend to keep all references generic. My characters drink soda (although in my part of the South, “coke” is a synonym with “soda”.) They wear jeans. My editor just asked me to change “weed eater” to “weed whacker.”

    But cars are a different thing altogether. The type of car someone drives says so much about them. I have a teen male hero driving an F150, his ex-girlfriend drives a mini-Cooper, his mother drives a prius, and his dad drives a Lexus. You can form opinions just on that.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      Yeah, I got called a Birkenstock wearing, tree hugging liberal (in the nicest way possible, of course) because I drive a Subaru Outback. And I don’t wear Birkenstocks (I’m probably not even spelling it right). I might hug a tree, but I’d never kiss one. Now, my mom does wear Birkenstocks and drives a Prius. Lexus – well, I just like saying it. Sounds sexy.

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  7. Kat Cantrell says:

    Great post!! I’m firmly in the “C) The story hinges on it” camp. I cannot start a story unless I know what kind of clothes the h/H wear and what car they drive. Everyone gets a smoking hot ride because I, sadly, will never have Tony Stark’s cars and want them.

    Anyway, brands are as much a part of character as how people talk. So I will use them until someone makes me stop. 🙂 Does it date your book? Maybe. I don’t care.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      I have had several smokin’ hot cars (instead of, let’s say a retirement account)but I gave all that up to have heated leather seats, four-wheel-drive and power everything. It’s better that way, Kat. Trust me.

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  8. Wow, this is a great subject!

    And that is my fear, that whatever I use will be SO last March by the time my book comes out. So I am very careful about what I put. I will use tried and true products every once in a while, and classic cars only get cooler, so those are safe.

    But I have been thrown out of a story because the products mentioned are not in style today, so again, I’m very cautious. I just don’t want a reader to roll her eyes ten years from now because I had my hero in an Affliction shirt. It does date your story, no matter how cool it might be when you write it. But being careful and using products that have been around forever and will likely still be “en vogue” 20 years from now is a good idea. I’ve even had my heroine in a “vintage” Gucci button down. Who can argue with vintage? LOL

    GREAT post, Kelly!

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      So true. Even some of the most established companies are going under. It is a fine line. I was watching a movie last night and I think the heroine asked “Are you going to bang me now?” and the hero said “Do people say banged anymore?” and I was like, God, I hope so because it’s my favorite word.

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  9. Tamara Hogan says:

    I’m specific with brands if the characterization calls for it – and I agree, Kelly, cars seem to be a place where specificity is needed. In CHASE ME, my city-boy hero, Gabe, drives a spotless, staid BMW, and my heroine, Lorin, drives a twenty year old truck held together with Bondo and baling wire. I tend to avoid naming specific clothing brands because clothes can go in and out of style so quickly. In my WIP, I make an exception for my Ugg-wearing, metrosexual hero, Rafe. It’s winter in Minnesota, fer gawd sake. Minnesotans adopted Uggs as functional footwear long before panty-free Hollywood starlets discovered them and decided they were fashionable!

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      I have Ugg wannabes and they are so ugly and so compfy. I’m not nearly fashionable enough to reference anything terribly trendy.

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  10. Vivi Andrews says:

    I feel like I ought to worry about this, but it falls under the “Don’t sweat the small stuff” category for me. I just write the book the way I want it and if it’s dated in a few years, I will already be onto the next (hopelessly dated) book and won’t remember to stress about it (much).

    My editor wanted me to remove the phrase “excited as a tween at a Twilight premiere” from a book that came out a couple years ago because it would date the book. I figure I have one more movie release before that reference goes stale.

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    • Kelly Fitzpatrick says:

      I think a Twilight reference would have a pretty long shelf life, actually.
      I still enjoy Sue Grafton’s books even though the heroine is typing her reports on an electric typewriter and walking down to the corner payphone to place an important call. Probably any reference to cell phones will be obsolete when they hardwire our brains to think out a message.

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      • Beth Langston says:

        I love to read what Kinsey has to go through without our technology.

        When I’m reading Sue Grafton, I say “Wow, I’d forgotten about that.”

        When my daughter reads Sue Grafton, she says “Huh?”

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  11. Diana Layne says:

    I try to keep things generic too, but a good thought-provoking post–sorry I’m so late!

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