My creative writing professor told us never to use brand names in our creative works. The practice cheapened our art and morphed it into some kind of advertising. I’m not sure if I agree with him any longer, and I have my suspicions that he only gave us this advice because we were doing it wrong, and it would just be easier if we avoided it altogether.

Through reading others’ creative works, I’ve been able to ascertain the differences between expertly placed brand names and amateur description. On one hand, an iconic label on a bag of sugar can be the final finishing touch like a cherry on top of a sundae; on the other, it can be distracting, clumsy, and—as my professor put it—cheap.

Sometimes the brand name is the perfect word, and it will crystallize a scene for me. When Jack Torrance is pumping down that Excedrin in The Shining, you know just what that is.

Stephen King

When you’re helping the reader fall into the dream with your description, there are some considerations to keep in mind with brand names, and knowing the difference between good usage and poor usage can help you on your way toward building a solid and concrete imaginary scene.

Use Brand Names When It Aids Characterization

One way that you can be sure that having an actual brand in your fiction is helping the narrative is when it actually adds something to the characterization of a place or individual in the story. For example, a person who drives an Escalade can be characterized far differently than one who drives a beat-up Chevy Nova. The word “car” would not suffice in place of those descriptions. You may also be able to draw conclusions about a 30-year-old man who smokes Marlboros and an old and wizened widow who lights up Virginia Slims. Does your character go to a bowling alley, or is it important that he goes to Lucky Lanes with the E blinking and struggling to stay lit?

Testing for Poor Product Placement

Alternatively, saying that a character “sipped her Dasani” instead of “sipped her water” is a sure-fire way to detract from the compelling conversation she’s having with her hitman over dinner.

Read the sentence you have out loud and replace brand names with common nouns; does losing the brand change the meaning of what you have to say? Specificity is only helpful when it’s necessary. Think of yourself as the director of a movie. Would you be spending the time to film manufacturer’s specs behind the refrigerator unless it’s significant to the story arc? Same goes for novels. Don’t waste your film. It’s expensive.

In this vein, be sure not to saturate the setting with brand names even if the details are helpful. If you go overboard, your description can actually detract from the story and read like ad copy. Another thing to consider is that, over time, it’s likely that these products can date your work. Select brands carefully, ensuring that you’re not just jumping on a fad that could be irrelevant ten years from now.


World Building

In some fantasy, science fiction, and alternate reality stories, inventing your own brand names can be a jarring way to bring your strange new world to the forefront of the narrative and even alienate your readers into a sense of curiosity and wonder. As an individual already mentioned in this post, one of the authors that does this the best, in my opinion, is Stephen King.

I’m thinking specifically of a scene in The Dark Tower series where our heroic trio travels to another dimension and sees some pretty strange things. King is sure to include unfamiliar and bizarre brand names (such as Nozz-A-La instead of Coca-Cola) to both give us a sense of the world’s weirdness and seemingly break the fourth wall by having us experience an almost out-of-body feeling ourselves. These are deliberate moves and hardly amateur; he uses brand names consciously and with intention of bringing about a specific result.

With that in mind, you’ll have to really consider the ramifications of including brand names and what you want them to say about you. Readers tend to attach themselves to these really concrete details like baby ducklings, so it’s important not to abuse your power. In some instances, these brands can take on metaphorical or symbolic weight like the T.J. Eckleburg billboard in The Great Gatsby. If you’re not trying to give them this much prominence, it might be best to leave them out.

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