What's everyone's position on the use of trademarked or pop-culture items in fiction? The specific example I can think of is Facebook. I'm finding it hard to write about teenagers in my near-future sci-fi stuff without acknowledging that they spend a lot of time on twitter, texting, IM, facebook, etc.
I understand this will date a piece, so I'm not specifically asking about that - but rather are there any appropriateness boundaries to be aware of with these brands? (twitter, facebook, AIM, for example.)
How do you handle pop culture content in your work?
By way of context, I'm reading a William Gibson book called Pattern Recognition and he uses an online bulletin board concept in there (very funny to see how his MC will check the boards when she goes online), email, cell phones, and makes mention of many current well-known brands like Prada and Michelin and others that most people today would recognize. It's from earlier this decade - 2002 or 2003 I think, and is not out of date yet, in my opinion. Again, though, I'm not particularly concerned about a piece getting out-of-date, but rather what's appropriate.
People who own the trademarks really wish that people who mention their trademarks include the (TM) notification, but it looks really clunky in narration, and it is not going to happen in dialog.
The trademark owners would also prefer that rather than refer to a trademark in generic terms (which runs the risk of their trademarks becoming generic terms) authors would use the appropriate generic term in the first place. For example, photocopy instead of Xerox (TM), and facial tissue instead of Kleenex (TM), and hook-and-loop tape (or closure) instead of Velcro (TM).
Referring to things in popular culture that are trademarked happens all the time, and it's part of story background/color or whatever you want to call it. Some trademark owners really hate it, but others just shrug and hope that it works as free advertising for them. I'd recommend the "less is more" approach, because you can risk committing the sin of "term-dropping" (similar to "name-dropping" but committed mostly in science fiction stories) and irritating your reader.
(I'm still a bit vague on what "twitter" actually is...along with a lot of other relatively new online stuff. I hear it here and there, but haven't yet grasped what it's supposed to be or do...)
I don't think "hook-and-loop tape" will work as a substitute for "Velcro"---on the less-is-more principle, one word is better than a mouthful of words.
You could always introduce your own terms, contemporary or otherwise. There's a lot floating around out there. Say, oh, well...since the act of selling religious office for profit is called "simony" (after Simon Magus, I think), you could call the act of selling political office "doing a Blago," or somesuch.
I personally find myself annoyed or detached from a story when I read Facebook, Coka-Cola, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, or Xerox, or anything of the sort. I believe this is because I picked up a fantasy or sci-fi novel to get away from my world and here it is, beating me over the head with commercials.
I believe having the teens spend time on a facebook would be perfectly appropriate, just call it something else. This is my preference on the subject, hope it's what you were looking for, Kayti.
I think your story would quickly become dated if you use the specific names for such things. And there's always the trademark problem as well as the annoyance factor for those readers who dislike "product placement ads" in films and books(in films, producers are paid for trucks that drive through a scene with "Coca-Cola" on the side, for instance - some readers might think the same thing applies in books, I dunno, or they may just be annoyed by it). Honestly, as quickly as the digital world changes, I'd be quite leery of using any particular brand name - and as Robert said, a lot of us have no idea what Twitter is, although I've seen the term. If you use some explanatory name or term instead, it might work better in the context of your story. JMO of course!
Twitter, just to inform those who seem curious, is a micro-blogging site. You know about blogs - web logs (that's where the name comes from) - places where people can post their thoughts, updates, etc. online. Twitter does the same thing but compresses things by having a 140 character limit on the post length, so it's used a lot by teens and the cell phone generation because that's something readable on a cell phone screen, and typable on a cell phone keypad.
In the case of my stories, I wouldn't be able to step out and explain what twitter is, because of course the teens in the story would all know, but it would be apparent through the use/narration what the characters were doing (Sally stopped for a minute on the sidewalk to tweet that she was going to the diner on fourth and main, hoping against hope that Joe had subscribed to her feed and would see it and show up.) A twitter post is called a tweet, LOL.
I dislike making up words for existing stuff - similar to that item on many editors' lists of don'ts in sci-fi, don't name a rabbit a warblo when really it's just like a rabbit. If on the planet Xenon the rabbits are called warblos but all your characters are from earth and they think the warblos look like rabbits, just call them rabbit look-a-likes. So anyway, I don't want to invent a term for something that exists, because that feels silly to me. But KDW's point about using something more generic does make sense. I can refer to microblogging, and I can name a fictitious social networking site, etc.
I have some ideas where all this is going, so I'll build those ideas into stories as well, but I was curious about that kind of branding/trademarked names and the opinions of readers/writers. More opinions always welcome. For what it's worth, most of what I'm wondering about is these kinds of technology bits - brand names of cell phones, popular sites or technologies. I'm definitely not a fan of consumer marketing in stories (like the coca-cola business a previous poster mentioned.) Somehow this aspect of pop-culture (tech stuff) feels a little different to me.
Sometimes, using the brand name tells us something about the character. In Fleming's books, Bond drives an Aston and that tells us he likes--and can afford--a fast, stylish, luxury motor; he knows it's fitted with Marschal headlamps, so we see he's a bit of a gearhead with attention to detail. His preference, not only for Bollinger, but for specific years, indicates he's a man of discerning taste -- as does the Aston.
As you say, KayTi, it's as natural for kids to "twitter" and listen to an iPod (through only one earbud!) as it is for the rest of us to "google", or look something up in Webster's or hunt for a magazine in a pile of Analogs and Interzones; in some stories it will be more authentic to use real brands than made-up ones or generics.
I don't believe branding can date a story (because, for example, if someone lights a Marlboro in a story set in the 60s, no matter when you read it, the story is still set in the 60s) unless the story is set in the future, and then only if the brand doesn't survive. If, for example, Twitter merges with Facebook and becomes, oh, TwitterFace or something, then, if it's read after the merger, the story will look dated--unless it's firmly set in a time prior to the merger.
To add to Kathleen's valuable guidance: This looks like a useful link on "fair use" of trademarks. Basically, it seems that as long as you don't imply sponsorship or endorsement, you should be okay.
(I have seen technical books acknowledge trademark owners on the copyright page -- Wiley capitalize them the first time they're used. That isn't going to work in short fiction; a novel, maybe, if you're so inclined.)
To summarize, I'd use a brand if it tells us something about the character or the milieu, or adds to authenticity. I'd be more leery if the story is set in the future, because so few brands survive ... but not much more leery, because if the story survives into the time of its setting, dated can become delightful -- "Look what she forsaw, and what she didn't."
I'd be careful about things like "doing a Blago," because of our "innocent until proven guilty" legal system. Such a term could be considered libelous right now.
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One problem with trademarked words is that people will use what words they want whether they're trademarked or not---people will drink a Coke even when it's a Pepsi---and when the writer to use euphemisms to get around these things, he risks being labeled as unrealistic. I'm inclined to call a Coke a Coke, and damn the consequences. (Of course, I'm not published, either.)
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