Fictional Brand

Fictional brands are used in artistic works to imitate or satirize corporate brands, and/or to avoid trademark or copyright infringement. 

Such a device may be required where real corporations are unwilling to license their brand names for use in the fictional work, particularly where the work holds the product in a negative light.

More recently, fictional brands have been used for commercial purposes through the process of reverse product placement (creating products in real life to match those seen in a fictional setting. Consumer attachment to made up products like Duff Beer (‘The Simpsons’) and Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans (‘Harry Potter’) are leveraged through ‘defictionalization’ or ‘productization’ in the real world. Fictional brands represent brand potential rather than brand reality; they are in effect, ‘protobrands.’ In 2012, Staples Inc. started selling its own product of manufactured paper by ‘Dunder Mifflin’ (‘The Office’), under license from NBC’s parent company, Comcast.

Works of fiction often mention or show specific brands to give more realism to the plot or scenery. Specific brands provide descriptive details that the author can use to craft a plot: a character may own a factory that manufactures a popular product, or may make a scene by demanding a particular brand; a detective may get clues from the brand of cigarettes smoked by a suspect; a film may include a commercial poster on the background, or show a package of cereal in close-up. However, unauthorized use of real trademarks for such purposes could trigger legal action by their owners – especially if the brands are referenced in a way that could be seen to have negative marketing impact. In general, the use of a real brand requires prior written consent by the brand’s owner, who will typically demand some control on the brand’s use.

Sometimes a specific brand is needed because of its prior associations; e.g. the Coca-Cola machine scene in Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ would not work with any other real or fictional brand (except possibly Pepsi). Sometimes the author will use a common brand only to make the scene more natural or create a specific ambience. More commonly, such uses are instances of product placement – the insertion of ‘casual’ (but actually paid and intentional) positive references to brands in movies, television programming, games, and books. However, this practice is so widespread in the entertainment industry that it gives authors another reason to avoid the use of real brands: any such reference would be suspected by the public of being paid advertising, and could diminish the artistic or intellectual merit of the work.

Another advantage to a fictional brand is that all its specifications can be invented. In this sense, an author can invent a model or brand of car, for which he can make up details. That way, he doesn’t have to go look up specifications on a car, which would take time and effort. Sometimes, a real brand would not be permitted due to restrictions in advertising particular products, especially cigarettes and alcohol. Usually a fictional brand would be created that bears some resemblance to a real brand.

Television programs made in Canada for the Canadian market are not permitted to show or mention real brand names except in certain specific circumstances. The CRTC’s prohibition of product placement exists primarily to prevent producers from accepting payola, especially if accepting it affects creative control or leads producers to attempt to deceive the audience (by, for instance, implying that X Brand Olive Oil is the best brand because the host uses it). In some instances (especially cooking and home improvement shows) brand names are merely inked, taped, or edited out; in dramatic presentations, however, fake brand names may be used. The restriction does not apply to news or current affairs programs when mention of the brand is necessary to fairly and fully present the subject matter, and it does not apply to televised sporting events, where branding may be beyond the station’s control. Programs produced outside of Canada are not subject to these rules.

Yet another reason to use a fictional brand is that sometimes a product is itself a major ‘character’ in the plot, and using a real brand would limit creativity as the author would be constrained by the actual attributes of that brand. A subset of this is comedic brands, the most famous being ‘Acme’ for the maker of complicated gadgets that never quite work. Finally, the use of a real brand may be excluded also when the plot is meant to develop in a time or place (e.g. in a distant future, or in a fictional universe) where the real brand would not have existed anyway. Alternately, made-up brands are often more humorous than real brands, which is why a lot of cartoons and sitcoms prefer them.

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