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Mary sat in front of the computer and fired up Google.

Mary sat in front of the computer and fired up the search engine.

Jack started up his old car.

Jack started up his old Subaru.

Bob nodded and took a sip of his Budweiser.

Bob nodded and took a sip of his beer.

What are the pro and cons of using real life brand/company names? Which option do you use?

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Can I use real presidents (past and present) and real companies in a fictional story? is closely related since this answer mentions literary issues even though the question's use of "can" implies only concern with legality. This question is more specifically about all the tradeoffs (and does not present any concern regarding use of historical characters), so it is not a duplicate. – Paul A. Clayton Jul 12 '14 at 13:03
up vote 2 down vote accepted

My feeling is that unless the brand name plays a critical part in your story, don't use it. You don't want to risk the wrath of corporate lawyers unless you absolutely must. Why build your entire story around "do you eat the cookie part of the Oreo or the cream?" and then have Nabisco refuse to give you permission, so you have to rewrite it as "chocolate wafer sandwich cookie"?

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Shouldn't that be "trademark lawyers"? From what I understand trademarks protect against false use of the name not correct use. This does not stop a corporation from making accusations. This link from this answer provides a good overview of trademarks. – Paul A. Clayton Jul 12 '14 at 12:55
@Lauren Ipsum I see, thanks for the answer. I'm asking this because I was having troubles describing Facebook. Should I just say, "She checked her social network's posts?" – Alexandro Chen Jul 12 '14 at 13:06
@PaulA.Clayton Yes, you're probably right; I will edit. Some companies don't want their names/images referenced at all, for good or ill, which was the point I was trying to make. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 12 '14 at 14:09
@AlexandroChen Yes, "social network page" or "posts." Besides, who's to say that it's Facebook? Maybe in your story's universe MySpace became dominant, or it's something else entirely (MyFace or FaceMe or something). "Social media page" gets the point across without hanging up the reader on the minutia. – Lauren Ipsum Jul 12 '14 at 14:10

The main con is fear of corporate lawyers if they think you're portraying them negatively. I am not a lawyer (nor a writer or publisher of fiction), but my impression as a reader is that minor mentions don't provoke their wrath but if your plot hinges on, say, a horribly-malfunctioning vehicle, you might not want to name a brand.

The main pro, on the other hand, is adding detail. "She fired up the search engine" is bland. People don't talk like that. (People don't talk like that so much that companies like Xerox and Kleenex have had to vigorously defend their trademarks to avoid losing them to common usage.) Using a name is one way to add detail.

That said, it's not the only way to add detail and it might not be the best way. Consider the following examples:

Joe got a cola from the vending machine.

Joe got a Coke from the vending machine.

Joe took the can from the vending machine, opened it, and took a long drink. Ah, he thought, just what I needed -- cold caffeinated carbonation. This should help me stay awake in my next class.

In this example it doesn't really matter if it's Coke or Pepsi or something else. The brand isn't important to the story; you were only reaching for "Coke" because most people don't talk about drinking "a cola". But you can show what's important about his drink without actually saying the brand; you get the richer detail and nobody who owns a trademark has grounds for complaint. (Though in this case it seems unlikely that Coca-Cola Inc would object.)

Granted, the last option is longer. This won't always work. And once you've introduced it, you can be terse in future references. In your example it might be just fine for Bob to drink "a beer" if you've already placed him in the bar. There isn't one approach that's always best; context matters.

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