Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

A brand apart

with 5 comments

Kyle MacLachlan in Blue Velvet

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What individual instances of product placement in movies and television have you found most effective?”

One of the small but consistently troublesome issues that every writer faces is what to do about brand names. We’re surrounded by brands wherever we look, and we casually think and talk about them all the time. In fiction, though, the mention of a specific brand often causes a slight blip in the narrative: we find ourself asking if the character in question would really be using that product, or why the author introduced it at all, and if it isn’t handled well, it can take us out of the story. Which isn’t to say that such references don’t have their uses. John Gardner puts it well in The Art of Fiction:

The writer, if it suits him, should also know and occasionally use brand names, since they help to characterize. The people who drive Toyotas are not the same people who drive BMWs, and people who brush with Crest are different from those who use Pepsodent or, on the other hand, one of the health-food brands made of eggplant. (In super-realist fiction, brand names are more important than the characters they describe.)

And sometimes the clever deployment of brands can be another weapon in the writer’s arsenal, although it usually only works when the author already possesses a formidable descriptive vocabulary. Nicholson Baker is a master of this, and it doesn’t get any better than Updike in Rabbit is Rich:

In the bathroom Harry sees that Ronnie uses shaving cream, Gillette Foamy, out of a pressure can, the kind that’s eating up the ozone so our children will fry. And that new kind of razor with the narrow single-edge blade that snaps in and out with a click on the television commercials. Harry can’t see the point, it’s just more waste, he still uses a rusty old two-edge safety razor he bought for $1.99 about seven years ago, and lathers himself with an old imitation badger-bristle on whatever bar of soap is handy…

For the rest of us, though, I’d say that brand names are one of those places where fiction has to retreat slightly from reality in order to preserve the illusion. Just as dialogue in fiction tends to be more direct and concise than it would be in real life, characters should probably refer to specific brands a little less often than they really would. (This is particularly true when it comes to rapidly changing technology, which can date a story immediately.)

Danny Pudi and Alison Brie on Community

In movies and television, a prominently featured brand sets off a different train of thought: we stop paying attention to the story and wonder if we’re looking at deliberate product placement—if there’s even any question at all. Even a show as densely packed as The Vampire Diaries regularly takes a minute to serve up a commercial for the likes of AT&T MiFi, and shows like Community have turned paid brand integration into entire self-mocking subplots, while still accepting the sponsor’s money, which feels like a textbook example of having it both ways. Tony Pace of Subway explains their strategy in simple terms: “We are kind of looking to be an invited guest with a speaking role.” Which is exactly what happened on Community—and since it was reasonably funny, and it allowed the show to skate along for another couple of episodes, I didn’t really care. When it’s handled poorly, though, this ironic, winking form of product placement can be even more grating than the conventional kind. It flatters us into thinking that we’re all in on the joke, although it isn’t hard to imagine cases where corporate sponsorship, embedded so deeply into a show’s fabric, wouldn’t be so cute and innocuous. Even under the best of circumstances, it’s a fake version of irreverence, done on a company’s terms. And if there’s a joke here, it’s probably on us.

Paid or not, product placement works, at least on me, although often in peculiar forms. I drank Heineken for years because of Blue Velvet, and looking around my house, I see all kinds of products or items that I bought to recapture a moment from pop culture, whether it’s the Pantone mug that reminds me of a Magnetic Fields song or the Spyderco knife that carries the Hannibal seal of approval. (I’ve complained elsewhere about the use of snobbish brand names in Thomas Harris, but it’s a beautiful little object, even if I don’t expect to use it exactly as Lecter does.) If it’s kept within bounds, it’s a mostly harmless way of establishing a connection between us and something we love, but it always ends up feeling a little empty. Which may be why brand names sit so uncomfortably in fiction. Brands or corporations use many of the same strategies as art to generate an emotional response, except the former is constantly on message, unambiguous, and designed to further a specific end. It’s no accident that there are so many affinities between advertising and propaganda. A good work of art, by contrast, is ambiguous, open to multiple interpretations, and asks nothing of us aside from an investment of time—which is the opposite of what a brand wants. Fiction and brands are always going to live together, either because they’ve been paid to do so or because it’s an accurate reflection of our world. But we’re more than just consumers. And art, at its best, should remind us of this.

5 Responses

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  1. Interesting piece on an often considered struggle of my own – to name or not to name the brand. To over brand in fiction without the severe irony of say George Saunders or Douglas Coupland seems distasteful but the idea of a pure writing without brands is delusional. I have succumbed to using some here and there as pointers and indicators that lead the reader when describing a character. I like what Gardner says (a quote I was unfamiliar with) and think the Updike reference works well. Thanks for the piece! J

    themapofantarctica

    June 19, 2015 at 10:18 am

  2. “Pointers and indicators.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

    nevalalee

    June 19, 2015 at 9:22 pm

  3. It’s an interesting balance. When I think of TV and product placement, I immediately think of NCIS and Gibbs + Starbucks coffee. I doubt there is a single episode that does not have at least one cup visible…

    However, if something is over-used it can become a parody… and yet in this case I don’t feel that it is. Interesting.

    I’m one of a select-few who don’t like “Fight Club”, but I do love the scene where he is looking around his apartment and seeing the catalogue-details overlayed on all of his purchases.

    Ben Ezard

    June 22, 2015 at 6:09 am

  4. There are two things I remember from Minority Report. Tom Cruise chasing his eyes down a hallway, and a huge Lexus badge looming in front of everything else. Very bad look. Lost respect for movie and director.

    Clearly many people in today’s world identify with brands and in a story brand choice helps pin their characters down (hell, the very fact that I _don’t_ care what brand my trousers are says something about me).

    I think Hormel did a Monty Python tie in at some point, so it’s all very circular at times too.

    Darren

    June 23, 2015 at 8:06 pm

  5. I’m inclined to give Minority Report a pass on this, since the product placements are used to convey a plot point about Cruise’s retinal scans. But agree that it could have been a little less blatant.

    nevalalee

    July 6, 2015 at 11:06 am


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