I have some very dear friends who are obsessed, a gross understatement, when it comes to product placement in either books or movies. Their opinion is that using real-life brand names in the middle of a novel, or showing real products in a movie, is nothing more than a commercial in the middle of the entertainment. To a certain extent, I can see their point. But I beg to differ.
When I was writing Saving Jake and Jake Holdridge first introduced himself to me, there were several things about him that he told me right off the bat: he wore his hair long, he preferred an army green trench coat purchased at a thrift store over any other outerwear, he always wore high-tops, and his chosen drink -when he wasn't raiding his father's wine cellar- was Coke. And I named the brands in the book. I also used Denny's as a favorite dining spot, and mentioned Pop-Tarts as a breakfast of choice. Later on in the book, I used actual establishments, both stores and restaurants, up in Door County, Wisconsin for particular scenes in the story, but I had permission from all the owners to do so. The name brands, however, were a conscious choice on my part.
I don't mind seeing Nike shoes on a character's feet, or reading what he ate at McDonald's, or what soft drink is his favorite. I don't mind reading about it, either. Unlike my friends, I feel that using real-life brands gives the book or the movie a sense of reality. If I am reading a murder mystery and the detective is drinking an unnamed cola, or worse, an obviously fake cola, I am jolted right out of the story and back into the realization that I am reading a book about someone and not really sharing an adventure with that person. And the same holds true for me regarding movies. I like that sometimes the protagonist is eating Lay's Potato Chips or drinking something from Starbucks. For me, those products are a touchpoint of reality that allow me to stay in the moment instead of coming out of the fiction escape-zone completely.
And product placement is hardly new. When I was a kid, James Bond was specifically driving an Aston Martin and brandishing a Walther PPK. More recently, Inspector Morse had his Jaguar, and FBI special agent Pendergast had his beloved Les Baer handgun as his favorite weapon.
So am I going to get pelted with tomatoes or does anyone else out there agree with me? Maybe product placement is free advertising for companies that may not need it. But hey, if eating at Denny's makes one of my random readers think of my book, you know what? I'll take it.