Recently, a reader mentioned my use of specific products in my books, and called it “distracting.”
First of all, this reader I mentioned is from New Zealand, and I write toward an American audience. These product names and brands I might use are all familiar to American readers, and so it does create a clearer picture for them than it would a reader who might not even recognize what that some brands are. So the tendency to want generic, might be predicated on a need for familiarity. This is precisely the reason I don’t read books with foreign settings, or books like The Hobbit…I don’t want to be lost in that landscape, confused about what everything means. I detest that in my own life, in my own landscape. I like familiar things. They ground me. I like specificity. It keeps things clear.
Second, it not only provides more elbow room for variants in references (i.e., “she headed for the Audi.” “She headed for the car.” “She headed for the A7”) but it’s also a device for character development. For instance, not salad dressing, but Miracle Whip. Not wine, but Barefoot Pink Moscato. Not phone, but iPhone. Not shoes, but Napoli Trekkers. Not car, but Audi A7. Not coffee, but Hazelnut with White Chocolate Macadamia nut creamer (and in a mug with a cute kitten on it)….
SIDEBAR: I also recall a reader mentioning that my character’s use of electronic cigarettes was distracting. Again, this is a product not yet in the common usage lexicon, psychologically. So a reader will notice it more. The same was true for tobacco in fiction, until it became passé to have characters smoking. (Watch any old black and white movie and you will suddenly notice how EVERYONE is smoking. It will seem odd and distracting).
Also, a character is partly elucidated by the choices they make, to include the products they use, the cars they drive, the clothes they wear, the food they eat…Brand suggests many things–taste, income, personality, beliefs, weaknesses…so using a specific brand name is intentional. It helps me communicate what I want you to know about a character.
Over the years I’ve read many books in which the author used only generic references to everything. Wine, drink, sandwich, sedan, convertible, phone, coffee….and I always had the thoughts, what kind? I wonder if this character likes white or red wine? I wonder if this character buys American or foreign? I wonder if this character likes expensive shoes or cheap ones? It kept me from gaining a full appreciation of that character, and tended to make them cardboard cutouts–and I find THAT distracting.
One might argue, the story’s the thing. Yes, the story is the thing, (nice of you to bring that up) but there would be no story without the characters and who they are. Character is equally important. And that means any device that allows the reader to understand them on deeper levels, make them seem like real people in their lives, is one more chance to draw that reader in and get her to read your book.