A few weeks ago a colleague of mine brought me two books and suggested that I read them. The reason: besides the fact that they are good books, they include a lot of brand dropping. I needed one day to read the first one and I just started the second one. These are two bestsellers from Holland, from an ex advertising executive Ray Kluun: the first one is Love Life (aka A Woman Goes to the Doctor) and the second one is The Widower.
Love Life is modeled on Kluun’s own experiences. His thirty-six-year-old wife was diagnosed with breast cancer and died in 2001 and after that he moved to Australia with his small daughter and began writing the novel.
The novel is not really full of brands, more like full of (fictional) Amsterdam bars and clubs. Brands are included, of course, but more for description of characters than for product placement. Coming from advertising, Kluun knows that you can sometimes describe a person just by writing down brands that he/she wears or uses. Here are two examples:
Kluun is not the first ex-advertising guy who wrote a bestseller. In 2000 French writer Frederic Beigbeder shocked the advertising world with his satirical novel 99 francs (retitled 14.99 euro after the introduction of euro). The partly autobiographical story follows Octave, a copywriter in the creative department in a leading advertising agency, who has everything: the car, the money, the women, the drugs, the appreciation. Until he falls for a girl …
Beigbeder describes Octave in the first sentence of the second paragraph (from the English translation):
My name is Octave and I’m dressed from head to foot in Tom Ford. I’m an advertising executive …
In my opinion that’s the proper way of describing a modern young man. We’re (partially) defined by brands. I’ll paraphrase the famous words from French gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin: “Tell me what you wear, and I’ll tell you who you are.” But there’s more than clothes and fashion. With market segmentation we could somewhat describe drivers of certain car manufacturers. For example: we could find small, but important differences among Peugeot, Skoda and Volvo drivers. Therefore modern authors have to choose brands very carefully in order to achieve the desired effect.
Bret Easton Ellis has pushed brand dropping to an extreme. His 1991 controversial novel American Psycho includes countless brands, names of bars and clubs, both real and fictional. The protagonist Patrick Bateman is extremely style-conscious and appears an expert in fashion and high-end consumer products/brands. The interesting (and sometimes boring) part of this satirical novel are Bateman’s descriptions of his and other people’s possessions: he goes in exhaustive details, but in case of clothes often ignores the textile type or color.
In the table below you can see how many times some brands appeared in the novel. I used simple search function for a PDF version of the book, so I might forget to check a brand or two.
American Psycho is of course one of a kind and all brands that were included were not chosen for commercial purpose, but for describing a morally flat world in which clothes have more value than skin.
But there are authors who chose to be creative in the field of brand dropping. British author Martin Amis has used fictional brands in his novel Money: A Suicide Note. Money tells the story of, and is narrated by, John Self, a successful director of commercials who is invited to New York by a film producer, in order to shoot his first film. The novel includes several made-up brand names – for restaurants (Burger Den, Burger Hutch, Burger Shack, Pizza Pit, Furter Hut, Doner Den) and cars (Farragoes, Boomerangs, Fiascos).
I showed some examples of brand dropping in contemporary literature. Since I work in marketing I like to see brands in books. In my opinion they contribute to the realism of the novel. But from brand managers’ point of view organizing product placement in books is a tough job. The ‘easiest’ way is to strike a deal with a superstar author (e.g. Dan Brown, John Grisham, Stephenie Meyer …) and get a prominent place for your brand in an upcoming (wanna-be) bestseller. But even that is risky – you’ll never now if the next novel will be as successful as previous. The ‘harder’ and almost impossible way is to be effective with upcoming or less successful authors. First, you have to convince them to include your brand in the story. And then there are additional obstacles for achieving success:
- will your brand still be relevant when the book hit the shelves
- how many people will eventually read the book.
These are high obstacles, but it’s worth a try. Who dares wins!
Some additional thoughts on the book 99 francs:
I took the quote from the English translation of the book. When I was doing the research for the post I’ve found that this sentence is not the same in every language. Here are some examples:
- French (99 francs, orginal): Je me prénomme Octave et m’habille chez APC.
- English (Was 9.99, Now 6.99: A Novel): My name is Octave and I’m dressed from head to foot in Tom Ford.
- Italian (Lire 26.900): Mi chiamo Octave e mi vesto da APC.
- Spanish (99 francos): Me llamo Octave y llevo ropa APC.
- German (Neununddreißigneunzig): Ich heiße Octave und kaufe meine Klamotten bei APC.
- Croatian (139,90 kn): Zovem se Octave i oblačim se u APC-u.
- Slovenian (2.999 SIT): Moje ime je Octave in oblačim se v Miyakejevih butikih A Piece of Cloth.
So we have an original text with brand APC, strange English translation where APC changed into Tom Ford and somewhat puzzling Slovenian translation. Why puzzling? Famous Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake introduced his concept A Piece of Cloth in 1999 and next year he opened two flagship A-POC stores in Tokyo and Paris. Beigbeder wrote his book in 2000 and A-POC is not the same as APC. So is it possible that we have a wrong translation from French to Slovenian?
BTW in 1988, Tunis native Jean Touitou created a French fashion label called A.P.C. (Atelier de Production et de Creation) that included simply chic casual wear for both men and women. Today, A.P.C. is becoming a prominent name in the ready-to-wear fashion industry as well as a modest wardrobe addition to both celebrities and the average shopper (source: essortment).
In my opinion the Slovenian translation is wrong. But not as ‘wrong’ as English :)
Using “Tom Ford” as “the proper way of describing a modern young man.” is fine except I think there are quite a few people who are not “modern young men” who have no idea who “Tom Ford” is or what it might signify. I am one of these people.
As a reader and not a marketer, I find brand dropping with real brands to be more annoying than not. I can usually tell that the brand is supposed to be describing some attributes of the character but they may as well be fake names and are just wasted words. For example, I wouldn’t know what it means for one character to be wearing Armani and the other Ralph Lauren. I have heard those names in passing but they don’t mean anything to me. If I was fashion conscious, it might mean something but as it stands, it doesn’t. I am certainly not inclined to look them up to better understand the character.
I prefer the author be more direct in the descriptions. This is usually more obvious when using made-up brands that express the attribute by use of the creative brand name. The “Fiasco” car example is one of these, I don’t know squat about cars but I get the joke and the name conveys something.
Hey Erik, liked your thoughts on the branding issue a lot.
This really reflects the consumption driven lifestyles that have come to define modern existentialism.
The flip side is the fact that as humans we have this seemingly ambivalent desire for individuality and belonging – I’m reminded of an anecdote regarding troops entering concentration camps after the end of Nazi rule who brought supply packages for the freed prisoners. One of the most sought after things that the women wanted was lipstick, as this gave them back their identity as an individual.
It’s a tricky issue as ‘brand’ and ‘identity’ can be both good and bad.
p.s – typo at the end of the second last paragraph – ‘french’ not ‘franch’!
This is stupid and lazy. What a shallow, cheap way of character description.
It worked for Bret Easton Ellis because they are shallow, cheap descriptions of the shallow, cheap people he was writing about. (i know they were rich, i mean ‘cheap’ morally or spiritually).
I’d expect this in supermarket romance novels, but not in real literature.
Thanks for the comments and reminder about the typo.
In my opinion brand dropping adds to the realism of the story. Of course it has pluses and minuses, and no character should be described only with brands he/she uses. But nowadays brand usage can (and I’m not saying that they definitely do) define someone’s lifestyle and character descripction can be much more precise if author uses brands than otherwise.
Interesting article and a fascinating topic. I agree that sometimes mentioning brands can help round out a character, and that brand names are a vocabulary readers can relate to, but it’s clear there’s a massive gulf between doing it well so that it complements the story, and doing it badly so that it jars with the story and spoils the reading experience. I find – or found, as I haven’t read much of his latest stuff – that Stephen King is a master of using brand names, often to evoke fond memories of brand names from our childhood (Keds shoes, Schwinn bikes) and thus add to the nostalgic tapestry he’s weaving. Similarly, the ‘head to toe in Tom Ford’ is also, to my mind, an acceptable use of brands, as the emphasis is not so much on the ‘Tom Ford’ as on the ‘head to toe’, which gives the reader an immediate impression as to what kind of man this character might be.
The example from Kluun, however, is for me a clear example of a poor, jarring use of brands. The fact that the dress is a Replay dress and the jacket is a Diesel jacket appear to serve no other purpose whatsoever than to simply mention these brand names. If someone’s jacket is being mentioned in a story then I think the reader deserves a little more information than a simple utterance of the brand name, and likewise if the jacket is important enough to be described then surely the author can flex his creative muscles a little more than just typing out the word ‘Diesel’. Brand placement is definitely a skill, and in fact I’d wager that brands which are more creatively, subtly and unobtrusively woven into the story serve their ultimate advertising purpose a lot better than brand names that are scattered throughout the text so carelessly and clumsily that they jar and offend.
But anyway, thanks and congratulations again on an interesting and thought-provoking blog post!