Product Placement in Books

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Sep 02 2009

What are the guidelines for product placement in manuscripts? Are there any restrictions to using trademarked brand names or is it just better to leave them out all together?

To the best of my knowledge there are no restrictions. You might need to add either a trademark or copyright symbol, depending on how the product is registered, but I find that’s more prevalent in nonfiction. In fiction, capitalizing usually does the job. And this is why we should all be thankful for copyeditors, who help ensure these types of things are done properly prior to publication. Whether or not you choose to use the product name, however, is entirely up to the author. As of yet, authors aren’t receiving payment for product placement in books, and as of yet no company seems to be fighting the free advertising.

This is one of those things that publishers usually have specific guidelines for. I wouldn’t worry about it too much in a manuscript (whether you need trademark or copyright symbols), although if you are using a product name I would definitely capitalize since they are proper nouns.

I actually think product names can be hugely helpful in allowing us to get to know characters and even places. For example, does your protagonist drink Budweiser or Chimay? I don’t know about you, but I get an immediate impression of a character depending on which beer she might prefer. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should riddle your book with products. Not every brand of shoe needs to be named and not every cup of coffee needs to be labeled, but if you envision your character having a certain predilection for Diet Coke over Diet Pepsi, then by all means you should make that part of her character.


38 responses to “Product Placement in Books”

  1. Avatar Alissa says:

    I appreciate when products are named specifically in certain cases, as it does, as you say give a pretty clear picture of the character. Generic car description particularly bother me for some reason. Old beater is fine, but if someone is driving a shiny new sports car I want to know what kind. Is it a Mustang? A Porsche? It makes a difference.

    That said, I have read books that were ten or twenty years old where sometimes products mentioned made the book seem a little bit dated. So, I would stay away from anything that is too trendy.

  2. The one thing a writer shouldn't do is use a real product or place like a real restaurant or chain store in a very negative way.

    In other words, your character shouldn't get food poisoning at McDonalds or die from broken glass bits in a Coke.

  3. Avatar Rick Daley says:

    I enjoyed reading this on my Dell (R) laptop while sipping Starbucks (R) coffee. I find the Mozilla Firefox (R) browser yields a better blogging experience than the Internet Explorer (R) browser that came with my Windows Vista (R) operating system.

  4. Avatar Mira says:

    Lol Rick.

    I agree. Sometimes the product name helps build the character in my mind.

    I'm surprised, though, that companies aren't looking for product placement in books. I sort of assumed they were. Don't get me wrong – I'm very glad they aren't, but I'm surprised they aren't taking advantage of anything they can lay their hands on.

    I could see that changing though. Especially with in e-books, that may, eventually, even have ads in them.

  5. Avatar Heidi Willis says:

    I'm so glad you wrote this.

    I had a discussion with another writer who insisted I should replace "SunnyD" with "orange flavored syrup crap" because he thought SunnyD was a lazy way of writing, and it assumed people would know what it was when they might not.

    And he wanted me to replace PopTarts with "toaster pastries."

    I totally agree with you: a specific brand gives a detailed glimpse into who the character is.

  6. This post reminded me of one of my favorite movies, "The Truman Show." It was so funny how Laura Linney snuck in products to "sell" while talking to Truman.

    I do use brand names sometimes when I feel it's appropriate or gives better insight into a character. I think you have to instinctively know whether "sports car" or two-door, baby-blue Mercedes works better (the latter which I use in my current wip!)

    BTW: Jessica, I linked you on my latest blog post.

    And, Rick – Ditto on all accounts except HP rather than a Dell!

  7. Thank you fot this post. I just had this discussion with another writer. She was telling me to name the beer my charcter ordered and I didn't think it mattered. I don't drink beer so they all look the same to me. Now I'm taking another look.

  8. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Since trademarks are registered to identify products to consumers, an author really shouldn't have to clear reference with the corporation/use the trademark symbol unless the product is part of the promotion/selling to consumers of the book. Like if it's in the title or on the cover. Just referencing it in the prose is normally okay as far as I know.

  9. Personally, if I discovered an author I was reading was being paid to mention a specific product, I would never read another word they had written.

  10. Avatar Anonymous says:

    You can't copyright names, so if you are asking if you can use copyrighted SOMETHING in your manuscript, it will be something like music lyrics or a photograph–in which case, you'll need to get permission from everyone who has rights to the song in question, and the symbol attached will be the least of your worries. You don't have to worry about copyright unless you are actually copying material that is protected.

    As for trademarks, it is NEVER required that you include the (R) after it. Companies need to do it because if they refer to themselves as PRODUCT(R), it gives them benefits if someone infringes on their trademark, because they can show that person should have been aware that their product name was trademarked. So you only see the (R) and TM (a) on uses that are strictly in commerce, and are used to sell a book, or (b) on uses that are sarcastic. (See, for instance, the Smart Bitches and the Magic Hoohoo (R)).

    There is no circumstance under which a regular person could be held to account for using the name of a product without the TM/(R) symbols, and if there is a house that requires such things, they are crazy and I never, ever want to read their books.

  11. Avatar Kimber An says:

    I like to be able to name products. For example, where I live you can pretty much tell what a person's like simply by the vehicle he or she drives. Especially if you're a single girl looking for a husband, there's a huge difference between a guy who drives a Ford truck and one who drives a Toyota sedan. This is Alaska, you know. Snow. Lots of snow.

  12. It depends.
    Too much product placement drives me crazy. I don't care what brand of watch the heroine wears when she's breaking up with her boyfriend, and neither should she!
    And there is another problem – I live in the Uk and I've never heard of Chimay beer. So it stops me and I go "huh?" and maybe do a google search instead of reading the book.
    But if you want to make a point, it's a great way. I wanted my hero to have a conspicuous, flashy sports car which would be guaranteed to break down in the city. I found one.

  13. Avatar Kate Douglas says:

    A specific product name tells me a lot about characters in many cases, but in others I am left guessing. I don't watch television, haven't read a PEOPLE magazine in years and rarely watch movies, so I'm totally out of the loop on what's current. When authors compare characters to TV reality show stars (something I recently saw in a book) I'm clueless as to the reference, so something that's not totally mainstream is lost on me. That doesn't mean I won't enjoy the story, but it does mean I'm going to miss what might be an important description.

    One of the drawbacks of spending life in a fantasy world rather than the real one!

  14. Avatar Malia Sutton says:

    I use the names of cars a lot. And designers, too. I think it helps give more insight into the character.

  15. Avatar Lily says:

    I have product names in my WIP. Didn't question it! What I did question, however, is using names of places, such as a So-and-So Pub on 5th Avenue.

    I figured as long as it was just to set a stage – nothing negative- it didn't matter. Does it? Do I need permission to use a restaurant name or a line of a song?

    I just finished a chapter where the protag's companion thought about 'when he sang the words…' Is that a copyright matter?

    Shakin' in my slippers…

  16. Avatar Angie Fox says:

    Your editor will let you know if what you're using is okay, or if you need to change something. Like my biker witches drive Harleys and that's fine, but when one of them is mixing up spells in the bathtub to to the tune of that Prince song from Pretty Woman, my editor said absolutely no lyrics, even in dialogue form.

    As authors, we just need to stay as true to the story (and our voices) and then let the chips fall where they may.

  17. What about characters — e.g., having a reference to 'Indiana Jones' or 'Keyser Soze?'

  18. Avatar Rick Daley says:


    My guess would be that you can mention the characters, but not incorporate them into the story.

    Ex 1 (ok): "Who do you think you are, Indiana Jones?" she asked.

    Ex 2 (not ok): Keyser Soze came out of hiding once again…

    I wonder if the dynamics would change for an author like Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer.

    If Dan Brown put out the offer to have Robert Langdon drink either Coke or Pepsi in the next novel, would either company pony up for a specific placement?

    Or if Bella from TWILIGHT were to have a new favorite beverage (other than blood, she got turned eventually, didn't she? Sorry. Moot point.)

  19. Avatar Beth Light says:

    I'm glad you posted this. McDonalds and Walmart make appearances in my book and up until now, McDonalds was 'a burger joint' and Walmart was 'a department store'. Identifying the stores will round out the picture.

    As always, great post!

  20. Avatar Becke Davis says:

    I wondered about this. In one of my WIPS the heroine gets hooked on mani/pedis and I wanted to work in some of the funky OPI nail polish names (i.e. "I'm Not a Waitress". Wasn't sure if that would be a good thing (product placement) or a bad thing (copyright, licensing issues).

  21. "and as of yet no company seems to be fighting the free advertising."

    No one has written about a serial killer who uses an Oral-B tooth brush to stab people with, I assume. It would so fun to be wrong though…

  22. Avatar Sheila Deeth says:

    I'd wondered what the rules were. It seems hard to avoid at least some product placement in creating character.

  23. Avatar bingol says:

    Fay Weldon wrote a novel sponsored by Bulgari, if I recall correctly.

  24. Avatar K.M. Cruz says:

    This was really helpful. I used a tv show name in one of my stories and have been wondering ever since if I should take it out.

  25. I've seen it so often that I don't even blink an eye at it anymore, but I have noticed it works better when the brands mentioned are long-standing. Brands that are popular may only be fads, and it can date a book if something mentioned was only well-known during a specific time, such as certain internet sites in the 1990s, or beverages like Pepsi Clear. (This is assuming, of course, that the book isn't a historical, and the author would not want it to feel dated ten years down the road.) But Ford and Coke and Wal-Mart and the like have been around for so long, and probably will be for a long time, that everyone would understand it without attaching any historical significance to it.

  26. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Wow, that was helpful. I've wondered about that. The other thing I've worried about was mentioning books, song, movie stars by name, and famous bands. Any opinions there?

  27. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Sorry Rick, should have read all the comments before posting. Thanks for answering my question before I even asked. LOL

  28. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Sorry Rick, should have read all the comments before posting. Thanks for answering my question before I even asked. LOL

  29. Avatar Anonymous says:

    Wow, now I feel like I'm in Twilight Zone. I can say that right? I'm having some major issues.

  30. Avatar Christina says:

    oh my goodness…one of the series I've read had so much name dropping it was sickeninng. I started just skipping over large parts because it was Prada this and D&G that. Highly annoying.

    And I have a feeling companies haven't been looking into product placement for books because you never honestly know how a book is going to do before it is launched. unless, like Rick said, it was someone like Dan Brown or Stephenie Meyer.

  31. This is something I have been thinking about lately. Thanks for shedding some light on it for me.


  32. Avatar Jm Diaz says:

    Definitely, go for the brand. Now that it's been reinforced over thirty times in this comment section alone, it should be safe to say that its commonly done.
    It gives the reader something to relate to, or an immediate visual.

  33. Avatar Kaz Augustin says:

    Of course, you may or may not realise that a lot of readers are not actually based in the USA. Chimay? Don't even know what that is. The difference between a quarterback and a full-back or a…is it lineback or linebacker? Don't know, don't care. Robert Langdon? Sorry. I can guess that he's the dude from The Da Vinci Code from the inference, but the name doesn't ring automatic bells for me. SunnyD? Not. A. Clue. Finding that in a book is an automatic "wallbanger" moment for me.

    Personally, I find use of such shorthand a turn-off and have stopped buying authors who, I believe, over-use "products" as lazy shortcuts in their prose. Not all of us are USians and I have enough reading that forces follow-up research and referencing without having to deal with a foreign cultural view embedded in my mainstream "entertainment" reading.

  34. I'd be careful as to HOW I used a name brand. It wouldn't do to say that "He wiped the spilled Johnny Walker Red off the coffee table—and the varnish, too."

  35. Avatar Christine says:

    I'm glad you posted about this – my husband and I were listening to the Dresden books in the car the other day, and Harry Dresden (who loves Coca Cola, btw), was fighting movie monsters. He fought this little doll, and I don't remember what he called the doll, but he was clearly talking about Chuckie but named it something else, which was jarring. What are the limits when it comes to using characters from a movie or book, even if it is for only a few paragraphs? Does that fall into fair use or would that be copyright infringement?

  36. Do companies ever pay for product placement?

    There is one particular series I read that convinces me someone is making some money of placement. If not, then why, oh why, would she incorporate that many product names. They are unnecessary and jarring, and the only thing that keeps me from going crazy is the thought that she is using them to supplement her income.

  37. Avatar Jude says:

    "As of yet, authors aren’t receiving payment for product placement in books…"

    I have read of occasional pay for play. Like the Bulgari/Fay Weldon deal. I think there was an author who featured a car in her novel/s for some kind of compensation. I've read also of marketing support in exchange for product placement.

    I'm surprised it isn't more common given the incursion/intrusion of advertising into so many areas.

  38. Avatar LivelyClamor says:

    The songs issue is interesting. I'm a "brand newbie" in the middle of a short story or series of stories which may turn into something bigger, which I DO want to put squarely in a specific time period and I DO want to refer to specific songs the characters related to in some way (not necessarily put lyrics in, but at least the titles) Will that confuse some folks who don't know the songs? Would putting in some of the lines be a huge problem (sounds that way)?

    The idea is, for example, to create irony and tension in illustrating a situation, e.g. a tender love song being played in the middle of a quarrel, a song about togetherness in the context of a person's isolation or the other way around. And to set it in a specific time frame which is relevant to how the characters behave.