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Inspired by GGx's question Will traditional publishers force you to remove brands?

I would probably not want to mention a brand name of a small brand in my work: a small brand might not want to be associated with a fictional work because of suspected endorsement, and might get replaced next year by a better brand, turning my work into a period piece. Readers might also be unfamiliar with a small brand. So it's all-around advantageous to make up my own.

But what about a big known brand, like Google? In a story set in our time, it would be rather weird for the characters to use a search engine that isn't google - we even use 'google' as a verb, as in "why don't you google it?".
Similarly, I haven't yet heard of characters driving InventedCarBrand rather than Porches and Rolls-Royces if they're rich, or Volkswagen Beetles if they're poor. Depending on the setting, characters drink coke or Dom Pérignon, not BlackSugarWater and FancySparklingWine.

So where does one draw the line? Is there a rule of thumb regarding when to use the existing brand, and when to make up one's own?

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    Not enough for an answer, but in case of car brands, consider using only the type instead of the brand + type. On top of it being less likely to be a problem with the publisher, it usually reads better. – Mast Jun 7 '18 at 10:47
  • “In a story set in our time, it would be rather weird for the characters to use a search engine that isn't google” — I guess I'm weird, then ;-) – celtschk Jun 9 '18 at 11:32
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This is not legal advice and I am not a lawyer.

Great question! I think the answer lies in this:

But what about a big known brand, like Google? In a story set in our time, it would be rather weird for the characters to use a search engine that isn't google - we even use 'google' as a verb, as in "why don't you google it?".

When you get to the point that it would sound odd to not use the brand name, that's where it makes sense to use it (if you can).

"Good question, let's Floogle that" sounds weird. If you were in a situation where you can't use the brand name legally (I'll leave whether that's the case for other questions to answer) you can write around it. "Good question, let's check the web" is definitely less awkward that using another search engine.

It's also worth looking into the concept of generic trademarks:

A trademark is said to become genericized when it begins as a distinctive product identifier but changes in meaning to become generic. This typically happens when the products or services with which the trademark is associated have acquired substantial market dominance or mind share, such that the primary meaning of the genericized trademark becomes the product or service itself rather than an indication of source for the product or service.

Thermos, Kleenex, ChapStick, Aspirin, Dumpster, Band-Aid, Velcro, Hoover, and Speedo are examples of trademarks that have become genericized in the US and elsewhere.

Whether this means you can use these without fear of getting a cease and desist letter... I'd check with a lawyer about that.

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    Still laughing at 'Let's Floogle that' :) If you've ever seen The IT Crowd you may remember an episode where they used this type of brand name switch and spent a whole day on FriendFace. But they got away with it because The IT Crowd's hilarious. youtube.com/watch?v=j4o2PDwKdcA – GGx Jun 6 '18 at 16:37
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    Actually, the fourth and fifth seasons of Arrested Development show Michael Bluth (the main character) working for a company called "Search", that has a logo that is identical to Google's but is the word "Search" instead. Also, generally Silicon Valley does not use major brands except in passing. Those are both comedies but my take is that real name brands generally will not make fiction publishers comfortable. – Todd Wilcox Jun 6 '18 at 19:48
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    @ToddWilcox I think in the case of AD, that's continuing a joke from the earlier seasons that's about phenomenon--the characters or narrator would say things like "let's do a something search", and S5 seems to even show the actual Google campus with a blurred-out logo. It could be based on actual discomfort from the network, but since it's done comedically, it's hard to say. – Milo P Jun 6 '18 at 20:14
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This is a complex issue, and there are a lot of things to consider. Generally, in my experience, it's better to make up a brand of your own, but it depends on what you think would work best for your story, considering the following points:

Not using real brands can give you more creative freedom

Funnily enough, I have an example of this from just the other day. I was writing a scene where my protagonist meets his soon-to-be love interest (who's also secretly a supervillain bank robber) in a nightclub. To demonstrate her wealth, I had her remark, "My entire outfit is Gucci". Then shortly afterwards, I came to a bit where I had to describe her outfit, so I looked up the Gucci women's catalogue.

Let's just say the clothes in their catalogue didn't match the image I had in my head of what that character would actually wear. Especially in a nightclub. Rather than flick through every high-end fashion brand I could think of in search of one that did match, I just changed the line to "My entire outfit is designer" and then made the description up.

Not using real brands lets the reader fill in the gap

Let's say you have a running gag in which your character's smartphone is slow and keeps crashing, and they constantly complain about it. If you don't mention the brand, readers will imagine it to be whichever smartphone company they like the least, and the joke will become even funnier to them. If you mention it's an iPhone, suddenly readers who like iPhones - and Apple's lawyers - aren't laughing anymore.

Using a real brand can help reinforce a character's personality

Certain brands are associated with certain subcultures or personality types. To use the soft drinks example: Mountain Dew is associated with gamers; Faygo is associated with Juggalos; Dr. Pepper is associated with the anime Steins;Gate. You can use these associations to your advantage, either to subtly reinforce a character's personality, or to subvert them ("The hell is a Juggalo? I drink Faygo 'coz it tastes nice.") At the same time, you should avoid a character using a brand that doesn't fit their image (unless, again, it's for subversive purposes).

Using real brands can date your work (but fake brand names are risky too)

This is something you alluded to in the question, but only occurred to me two years down the line:

a small brand [...] might get replaced next year by a better brand, turning my work into a period piece

This can happen with big brands anyway. Look at MySpace and Bebo: around 2007-08, they were two of the biggest social networks, but by about 2012 they'd both faded into irrelevancy as other social networks came along. Now MySpace is only remembered as "that one site nobody goes on anymore", and Bebo isn't remembered at all. Worse, if your story takes place in the future, you run the risk of anachronisms (arguably the most famous being Pan Am's prominent appearance in 2001: A Space Odyssey - they collapsed in 1991).

On the other hand, making up a brand comes with the risk that later on, a real-life brand or organisation will spring up using the same name, and ruin your use of that name in your own story. Consider this question from Feb 2020 in which a user planned to use the name "Corona" in their story, but then COVID-19 came along and made "Corona" synonymous with the worst pandemic in a century.

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    +1 Agree wholeheartedly with the first two points: letting readers "fill-in" the details (a) can make it "more real" in their minds and (b) avoids problems with using a brand that was high-profile but has since declined and/or that the reader has never heard of... which brings me to your last section: the problem I have is that such associations are very culture- and location-dependent. I'm not from the US; I've heard of Mountain Dew and Dr. Pepper (but not Faygo) but the "associations" you mention are completely absent (I don't even know what Juggalos is and don't watch anime). – TripeHound Jun 7 '18 at 8:34
  • @TripeHound I'd say the last point stands even if not all readers are aware of an association. If you're using the subversion technique and someone is not familiar with the association, I think they will pick it up. 'I guess in this setting there is an association between [brand] and [subculture] if [character] feels the need to mention they're not a part of [subculture]' – Cronax Jun 7 '18 at 10:23
  • @Cronax I guess it depends on exactly how it's done... assuming there's a (reasonably) strong association between Mountain Dew and gamers, reading "Klint, the hero of the ice-hockey team, asked for a Mountain Dew." might stir feelings of "subculture-breaking" in someone who knows the association; for me, it would just be "ho hum, he drinks Mountain Dew". To convey that this is somehow "odd", the author would still need to explicitly mention it (which might then seem odd to someone familiar with the association). – TripeHound Jun 7 '18 at 10:33
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+1 to Neil, my thought was the same: When a replacement name risks breaking the reader's suspension of disbelief (SoD), you need to either circumvent the mention or use the real name.

In the GGX case of "famous designer" (or famous lawyer, engineer, programmer, billionaire, CEO, sports star, actress, politician...), we always have more to choose from than names we can remember, so it will not risk breaking SoD to make one up. Every year we can plausibly see a new crop of all of those professions.

Another option is to invent anyway: For "Google" give yourself an expert computer scientist or super hacker.

"Wait, what are you searching with? That doesn't look normal."

"Oh. BFG. Little trick we've got, bypasses the filters on ... Here we go, found it."

"That fast? I searched all day!"

"Yeah dude. Get you some BFG."

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  • 'BFG' standing for 'Big Friendly Google'? :) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 6 '18 at 21:35
  • @Galastel No, BFG would be a program written to "bypass filters" on Google; e.g. to skip paid ads and paid placement, and prevent suppression of certain results that google might find and suppress. Or whatever, the point was that experts may be using different tools than commoners; hackers in particular. – Amadeus-Reinstate-Monica Jun 6 '18 at 21:56
  • Yeh, I got the point. It's just that the letters fit, so I couldn't resist. ;) – Galastel supports GoFundMonica Jun 6 '18 at 22:50
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Short answer: Yes.

I see little value in a reference to a small, local brand. No one outside of your area is going to recognize it. If you write, "Bob stopped by Starbucks", well, even people who don't patronize Starbucks probably know it's a coffee shop, and have some idea what sort of coffee shop, you don't need to explain further. But if you say, "Bob dropped by Frabnars" ... maybe everybody who lives in your town knows that's a coffee shop, but to everyone else, is that an auto parts store? a drug store? a strip club? Who knows? You'd have to explain what sort of place it is. And if you've got to explain, what's the gain of using a real place over an invented place? I suppose if Frabnars is owned by your brother-in-law and you want to throw in a reference to it as free advertising or a kind of inside joke, okay, but that's about the only value I can see.

I just hit something analogous while proof-reading a book for a relative. He mentioned that he had worked at a certain store many years ago, and then said that back then it was just the one store but "of course now they're on every street corner". Well I had never heard of the place. I looked it up, and it turns out that they have many stores in Tennessee ... but that's it, none outside the state. So to anyone familiar with Tennessee, it may well be a well-known store. But to anyone else, they have no idea. (At my suggestion he changed it to "of course now they're all over Tennessee".)

Companies come and go all the time, so even a brand that is well-known today could become dated. Compuserve and AOL were the industry leaders in on-line services not too long ago. Now ... is Compuserve even still in business? Kodak was practically synonymous with photography. Pan American used to be one of the biggest airlines in the world. Hey, there used to be a country called "the Soviet Union".

You mention the examples of soft drinks and cars. I think those are two very interesting examples.

There are a fairly small number of car manufacturers in the US, and everybody knows who they are. If you said that a character in your story is driving a Doodlebitz, I think most readers would find that disconcerting. There is no such brand of car, and the reader knows it.

But soft drinks are a little different. There are a few big ones that everybody knows. I haven't taken a survey but I'd be surprised if you could find many Americans who haven't heard of Coke, Pepsi, Dr Pepper, Sprite, and a handful of others. But there are also other, smaller brands out there. I can think of Faygo and RC. And I just found a list that includes many I never heard of before today: Cheerwine and Kinnie and Moxie. If you wrote in a story, "Bob picked up a 2-liter bottle of Doodlebitz cola", I doubt many readers would be taken aback. 99% wouldn't know if it was a real brand or not.

But as Neil Fein says, sometimes NOT using a super-well-known brand sounds odd. I saw a TV show a few years back where there were several scenes where characters wanted to look something up on the Internet, and they said, "Let's Bing it". I wonder if Microsoft paid them for that. I use Bing regularly, but it sounded very odd to me. Maybe it's the crowd I hang out with, but I have never heard someone say, "Let's Bing that."

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I'm not a lawyer, but to my knowledge, the riskiest move, legally, is to use a big company's currently trademarked brand name as a generic, as in "put it in your thermos," or "take the escalator one flight up" (both terms were originally trademarked).

The reason is that the company can actually lose its trademark (see above) if a term is used too often as a generic, and therefore these companies retain teams of lawyers to make sure that doesn't happen. That makes it worth it for them to sue you over this, even if you don't personally have a lot of assets.

Many writers use lightly disguised parody names to get around this (i.e. the "Strawberry" computer company).

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