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Bewildering Stories

Bewildering Stories discusses...

Brand Names and Cultural References

with Don Webb

The following correspondence may be of general interest. The original writer’s name is withheld because he/she is not yet a veteran contributor to Bewildering Stories.

Hello, sir, I’ve been working on a short story I was hoping to send in soon, I did have a quick question I hoped you could help with. Is it okay to use brand names — such as those of well known companies or stores — in the text of a story? I thought this might be a copyright problem, so I wanted to ask before I made a submission. Thank you!

Thank you for the query; you’re being conscientious and have done exactly the right thing to ask. Here’s my personal take on it, based on my experience as editor of Bewildering Stories. Please keep in mind that one of my tasks as editor is to represent the readers to our contributors.

The short answer to your question is yes. There’s seldom any problem, because commerce normally likes publicity. The long answer is: Proceed at your own risk and with extreme caution.

Commercial brand names are culture-bound. And Bewildering Stories has a world-wide audience. Will readers in Africa, Asia and South America know what you’re talking about? Will the people in your own locality know?

  1. What fast-food franchise are you least likely to find on Kentucky highways? Answer: KFC.
  2. What do Californians water their lawns with in a drought? Answer: Coors.
  3. How much of the joke would anyone in Canada understand, and where? Answer: Nunavut.

For those who don’t understand the references or get the jokes, click here for an explanation.

But that’s not to say that cultural references can’t be multicultural.

In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film L’Avventura — if memory serves; please don’t hold me to it if I’m wrong — Sandro is looking for food on a desert island in the Mediterranean. He finds a fisherman’s cabin and opens the door. The first thing he sees is a crucifix. A devout Communist, he exclaims, “My God, He’s more ubiquitous than Coca-Cola!” He slams the door and piously makes the sign of the cross.

Now, “Coca-Cola” says “American,” and the crucifix is a transcendent symbol. Both are “brands” known world-wide. Whole pages could be written to analyze in depth the comedy in that simple scene. And yet the scene is immediately effective: it brings Italian culture to the world in a way that almost all audiences can understand.

And we also have an article that discusses the problem of time-bound cultural references in another context.

Aside from connecting with the readers, there’s also a crassly commercial aspect to consider. If our authors are being paid for product placement in their stories, BwS would, of course, like a “piece of the action” — that is, a share of the commission — although we don’t expect it.

I imagine I’ve told you more than you really want to know, but your question is an important one.

Don Webb
Managing Editor
Bewildering Stories

That’s actually exactly what I needed to know. Awesome! and thanks for the fast reply.

Copyright © 2012 by Don Webb
for Bewildering Stories

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