Pop culture references – hip or dated?

Pop culture references – hip or dated

I recently read Rick Reed’s Bashed and commented on the large number of brand names listed. For me, this was distracting as I was concentrating on the brand names such as Prius or Ascics or 501s and the personal references they have for me instead of paying attention to the action and what was going on in the story. Mr. Reed commented saying that he felt the references kept the story current.

Now I don’t disagree with that but then reading a few more books with similar references (not to the same level but making a point to add these details). Specifically I find books LOVE to give car models and use short hand in some details. Instead of describing clothing, it’s easy to give brands and let the reader knowledge take over.

I wonder if this is really current or dates a book?

Now if a popular TV show is included in a book, say a random mention in casual conversation that characters may have, does this make the story current? If you’re reading the story just after it comes out, it may well be. For example, talking about Glee right now seems very hip and “in” even though I’ve never seen the show. I do know its some musical about gay teenagers or something. However if someone picks up the book 2 years from now, will the reference still be as “in” and current. Or will that now date the book.

I don’t necessarily have an issue with that level of detail but I think it’s distracting if it doesn’t have a purpose. Who cares that the characters is driving a Prius or an Escalade or a Chevy unless it has some relevance. Does it reveal something about the people or the plot?

So, what’s your feeling.

Do you like that level of detail? Or do you find it distracting?
Is it current and modern or dated?

I’m curious what readers and authors alike think.

18 thoughts on “Pop culture references – hip or dated?

  1. It depends. I would probably tend towards the large, more timeless brands that really add to the characterization… already, American Psycho with its references to Whitney Houston reads dated… it’ll be forever an eighties book because of that. Even though, funnily enough, it could have been timeless as a parable on how white boys networks work and how a materialist culture functions and warps people and how style beats substance… but what do I know.
    I think it’s significant, for example, in cars. One of my characters – amnesiac – is told he lost his memory in a car crash. And he wonders first what car it was. A Porsche? Yes, but which model? (That characterises the guy very well).
    Another of my characters drives a CCX Koenigsegg sports car. He wouldn’t settle for anything less (google it – it’s pure sex!). He’s also extravagant enough to spend a quarter million euros on a very fast car. But I wouldn’t inventorise his flat by designer. I’d bore myself stiff with the research. 🙂

    • Hi Vashtan, thanks for commenting! It’s nice to have someone chime in who uses brand names and explain why. I think that if the detail tells something about the character, then sure why not. It may “date” the contemporary book but it may also be necessary.
      I guess it comes down to author choice? I mean would you say there’s another way to handle the character aspect if you didn’t include brands? Maybe, but you like to do so.
      I’m not discounting it, just interested in a variety of opinions so thank you so much!

  2. I think a judicious bit of brand dropping indicates characterization; the sort of person who drives a Prius is going to have core values different from the person who drives the Escalade. More than a few references starts to look like product placement gone amok.
    (An aside – I used to sell high end sports cars. We referred to them as penis extenders.)

    • I agree about the different core values – if those values are shown in other areas. For example if you’re driving a hybrid Prius, wouldn’t there be a mention about eating healthy or a casual comment about recycling? Without such things, it calls the purpose of using a Prius vs. an Escalade into question. At least in my mind. If the additional details are included, then yes, the branding makes sense.
      penis extenders lol. nice.

  3. For me, things that bridge a long span of time are fine to be included by name, but when I say that I mean I might mention that a character drives an old-ass Toyota, rather than the model-name. Or I might say Levis rather than just jeans (though this is rare for me). What I won’t do is get overly specific with a brand by breaking it down to details. I mean, Ford has been making pickup truck for ages now, so I might say so-and-so just bought a brand new Ford truck with all the bells and whistles, but I won’t say the year and model, if that makes sense?
    It’s actually rather surprising, how many things are brand names or trademarked but have crept into popular use. Like… band-aids. Coke. Dumpster (I had no idea this was a trademarked name, rather than a descriptor for a… well, dumpster). But that’s a whole other topic, I think. LOL
    I think too much branding can be distracting and kind of annoying, but used in a vague enough manner, it doesn’t bother me. *shrugs*

    • We’re pretty similar in that I think. I don’t mind the comment about Levi’s instead of jeans since that brand is so common its almost bland in and of itself – just like bandaids or coke for any soda, so on. No one’s going to be distracted by drinking a coke whereas the constant comment about drinking a “soft drink” might be awkward language. So I do understand that. I think it comes down to the amount of use, how specific, and what purpose it has.
      THanks for the input!

  4. When I write historicals, my goal is to make them “dated”, so of course I do a lot of research so I can throw in popular brand names of the time (Royal Crown Cola, anyone?)
    When I write a contemporary story, though, I want it to stay, well, contemporary. For as long as possible, anyway. Added to that is the fact that stories are generally published six months to a year after they’re accepted, and I tend to write stories three or four months before I even start to submit them for publication. It’s impossible to put in too many specific topical details, particularly with regards to celebrities and such, because they could well be out of date before the book even appears for sale.

    • Oh, and I forgot to mention, Hubby and I have a riotous game in which we guess the age of a movie or TV show based on the style of phone the characters use. It’s amazing how quickly those date. If you haven’t watched “Seinfeld” in a while, you should check it out.

    • Thank you! That’s exactly how I feel because in historical books, all those details create a very vivid time frame. Whereas if you include comments like leg warmers or Tina Turner, you’ve dated your contemporary.
      I think you hit upon the great point that the time from writing to publication is even more of a consideration.
      haha – I love Seinfeld and you can really tell when exactly that episode was by all the comments they say. Same thing can be said about “Friends”. I haven’t seen that in who knows how long but I can remember how dated the hair styles and clothing they wore at the beginning vs. when they ended.

  5. Kassa, this is a great topic that has generated great comments! I mean, sports cars = penis extenders? Ha, ha! And that thing about the phones dating a tv show, I’d never thought of that. And TC Blue makes a good point about how we Americans in particular tend to overuse the brand-names, which can actually pull them away from trademark status and reduce them to a generic term in popular use (I can’t remember the specifics of this because it’s been about a million years since I was in business school, but it drives the trademark lawyers nuts!). It’s true, though, that we Americans will say things like, “Do you want a Bandaid? How about a Kleenex? I need to go Xerox this.”
    As for brand-names in fiction, probably best not to overdo it (unless, like GS Wiley is saying, you want to recreate a retro feel). I think the biggest thing that can sound dated in fiction is www/computer terms. I try not to even have a character say, “I’m going to Google it.” I mean, it took no time at all for MySpace to become totally passé and for everybody to go over to Facebook and then Twitter. Who knows how long those two things are going to last?

    • Great point! I think even saying things like “gmail” date the book because a few years ago everyone had hotmail, then gmail became the craze and who knows what the next one will be? But you’ve now stuck your book firmly in 2009/2010 when gmail was the main free email.
      But also trends and clothing in general changes so much that unless you’re purposefully trying to establish a finite time frame – such as historical – then I think a book has to be very careful about what they’re doing. But that’s just my opinion as a reader.
      Whenever I read about brand names, I always think about my associations. Like the iMac that exploded on me or the macbook that’s wonderful or so on. A few times you can ignore it, but too much? Just not a fan.

  6. Unless the author is getting out of control, I don’t mind the references in books. I do think it can date a book (like the Don Strachey mysteries? Love them, but they almost feel like historicals to me lol) but if I read something and it references a TV show that was popular a few years ago, it stills seems current enough. Or at least I’m not distracted by it b/c I can remember the show being popular.
    I also think it really depends on the characterization. People notice different things. If I stop by a friend’s place and you ask me later, I’ll never be able to tell you what label her purse or shoes were but I’ll absolutely remember the names of the books sitting out. I’d never notice cars except to say “big,” “dark,” or whatever but my sister always notices cars down to the make and model. So if you’re in 1st or deep 3rd POV and your character is couture-fashion obsessed and never notices clothing labels…well, that’s not good. And if your character is the type that would never in a million years be able to distinguish between a Prius and Ascics, then they shouldn’t be identifying that in their thoughts or convo anyway.
    Just my take on it, though I’m sure mileage may vary and all that. 🙂

    • Oooo so great! Thank you for that great point. If the character has a reason to be using those details/brand names – for example that excellent point about a fashion obsessed character – then I would totally expect an overwhelming amount of brands, even if it dates the book. For example, Devil Wore Prada – both the movie and book – are dated by the plethora of “in” brands used but the book doesn’t matter. The essential message comes across clear without needing to worry about the actual date/time line. And those details add a wealth of visual imagery and showing intricate points of the characters by what they wear and what they dont.
      However I think if you had that level of branding in a book such as Bridge of Madison Country, which is a tragic romance, well there’s a dichotomy.
      So you’re totally right. Mileage may vary.. definitely.

  7. As a former reader of Jackie Collins (the QUEEN of Brand Name Dropping. Seriously, omg)…brand name dropping is actually one of my big pet peeves in books. There are some things I can let slide for the sake of the story.
    In K.A. Mitchell’s Collison Course, you find out that Joey drives a Yaris and Aaron rides a Ducati. That’s about the level of attention I want paid to name brands. I find them tedious, even with the characters that are suppose to be knowledgeable about it.
    I mean, stuff like Prada boots and Jimmy Choos, Louis Vuitton this and Dolce & Gabbana that…I’m done with it in seconds.
    Which is probably why I don’t tend to write very wealthy characters. Or fashion savvy folks. I find that if you can’t describe the quality of something without dumping endless amounts of brand all over it…then you’re kinda lacking in terms of descriptive creativity.
    Again, there are some things that slide. But I honestly think that outside of certain circumstances (as GS said, creating a certain feel, historical accuracy, or just grounding the story with bits of “reality”)…then go along without it. There is always a way to describe something without dropping a name…unless you’re deliberately creating impression with the use.
    But in fairness, I know there are some things that are, as it has been pointed, that Americans take for granted. Saying Starbucks now is like saying expresso in the nineties. Jack for Jack Daniels. Harley for Harley Davidson. Vans. Converses. Doc Martens. I’ve written those and read storeis with them so I’m not going to hurl the book at the wall.
    But if it can be avoided…I think it should be. Course, I probably feel this way because I’m totally clueless about brands and only know that if someone is wearing Prada whatever…they’ve got some dough in the bank.
    😀 Just my two cents (or is this like 10?)

    • I totally agree that branding taking for granted – such as bandaids or certain liquor or Starbucks – I don’t think twice. Those I actually expect and it keeps the lengthy descriptions of coffee short.
      I think there’s a big difference between common, everyday branding and an excessive use is my point. And is excessive use good or bad?
      It seems to depend!
      Thanks as always for your dime -grins- dont break the bank.

      • Excessive use is…painful. And I’m trying to think of examples but I just woke up and my brain is fuzzy. But I know I’ve read line after line of brand name and all I can think is, “what if I had no idea what the hell some of this is?”
        Story is thus rendered instantly less entertaining because the reader is perhaps spending at least 50% of his or her time trying to figure out what a particular brand is and what it says about the character…if it says anything at all.

  8. I think you need to have a mixture of the two. It seems weird not to have any, if just because we’re not like that in real life. Would you say “Can I have a Coke?” or “Can I have a caffeineted soft drink?” today? 😉
    But you can also go over the top. And date things. In an earlier draft of TaD Simon was lamenting the cancellation of Firefly and that was one of the first things to go and made more general. I mean, I still bitch about the cancellation of Twin Peaks nineteen years later, but people would probably think that was odd for a character to do in a novel!
    It’s funny how terms can change though. Like ‘iPod’ meaning almost all mp3 devices.

    • Yea I agree. I even responded to a comment saying there’s no way you’d ask for a soft drink, you’d ask for a coke. Especially if you’re in certain parts of the US where -everything- is a coke.
      I do think the lamenting of Firefly is a bit too soon. I wouldn’t blink at someone crying about Twin Peaks because that would mean the book could fall anywhere between 20 years but sadly Firefly’s demise is likely still too soon. Plus it was such a cult classic, sadly.
      It is funny how terms become generic. Blackberry seems to cover everything but it is an actual brand too.

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