Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Product Placement

I use a lot of proper product and service names in Delux. One of my early draft readers, Jamie Bernstein, asked whether that was good idea. Another, Julie Butterfield, asked why the protagonist drives, of all cars, a Bentley.

One big problem with product names is longevity. Books only 30 or 40 years old with popular product names sometimes don't make sense now. Products and product names evolve rapidly. It's even hard to use phrases like "dial your number" that have technological implications. When was the last time anyone used a phone that had a dial?

On the other hand, the rapid advance of technology and, specifically, the Internet has required the invention of new words to describe entirely new products and services. Describing the product or service instead of using its name might provide better longevity, but at the expense of brevity.

"Google" is perhaps the most famous of these new words. "Google" is a variation of the word "googol," which is the name of the number defined as one with one hundred zeros following. In other words, a lot. Replacing the word "search" with the word "google" is perfectly acceptable now. For instance, "I googled 'Abe Lincoln' today." It sounds vaguely sexual when the subject is a proper noun.

Delux takes place at the advent of the Internet, when services like Google and Evite were introduced. "Google" seemed like a safe bet. I took a chance using the word "Evite," but even if people forget about the actual service, the name describes the utility and lets the reader know it's an online service.

Then there is "In-N-Out." Talk about vaguely sexual. But the In-N-Out product has religious connections that help a scene in the book. The description "burger joint" wasn't as loaded as "In-N-Out." Will In-N-Out exist in 100 years? Probably not, but it won't be hard for the reader to understand that it's a drive-through hamburger restaurant. If there are drive-through restaurants in 100 years.

Those are trade-offs of some of the brand names I used in Delux. I'm betting that the Internet will help Delux's longevity, especially if most unit sales turn out to be eBooks with links built in to explain the references. As a first time novelist, it's unlikely I'll negotiate product placement for the book. With eBooks, though, it possible to imagine product links and even advertising in completely new ways. Product names may be my new best friends.

But, hey, what about that Bentley.

The Bentley story comes from a Herb Caen piece I read growing up. Caen (re)told the story of the guy who runs off to Mexico with his girlfriend, and writes to his wife from the hotel, "Sell the Porsche and send me the money." The wife places an ad in the paper: "Porsche for sale. $5." You know the ending. That's before craigslist, of course.

I had a protagonist who needed a car. An important car. So I started re-working the Caen story. As I thought about special cars, I remembered driving around Los Angeles in a Bentley. It's fabulous and stupid. And people gaze. Then I thought about the name "Bentley." The first syllable. What other car would a gay protagonist drive?

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