For various reasons, many writers come up with fake product names for items and services in their stories. This is probably more common in comics and on TV than it is in prose fiction, but I’ve seen examples of it in all three of these formats.
Sometimes writers will use real product names and sometimes writers will make a point of using obviously fake or generic product names (as a protest against product placement/consumerism or to avoid lawsuits).
I’m not entirely sure of all the legal aspects of this whole subjects, since it covers trademarks, libel/defamation laws and copyrights. Whether these are an issue or not probably varies from story to story (eg: portraying a real product in an inaccurate or unfavourable way is probably more likely to end with a lawsuit than in a story with a more favourable portrayal of the product in question.)
I’m not an expert on this subject and you’re probably best doing your own research about it. But, if in doubt, use fake names rather than real ones.
However, if you use fake product names in your story, then you have to be very careful about choosing them. This is mainly because good storytelling relies on the “willing suspension of disbelief” and obviously fake or unrealistic product names are likely to make your readers less immersed in your story. So, here are five basic tips for coming up with fake product names which will sound vaguely realistic.
1) Translation: This one is really simple and it can work fairly well for most of your readers. Basically, just go online and find a foreign-language word for the product you are trying to name and then use this as your fake product name. It’s usually a good idea to use dead languages like Latin or to use languages which readers in your own country are unlikely to know.
For example, if your story involved your main character buying some cheese, then giving it a name like “Fromage-brand” cheese is probably going to sound obviously unrealistic. Since, if you live in the UK, then there’s a good chance that your readers will know that this is the French word for cheese. Likewise with using Spanish words in stories set in the US or aimed primarily at American audiences. So, instead, go for something like “Kaas-brand” cheese, which is the Dutch and Afrikaans word for cheese.
One major drawback with this approach is that at least a few of your readers will know the language which you have used for your product name. After all, in any country, you’re going to find people who speak a myriad of different languages (either as first or second languages).
2) Generic names: If possible, it can be a good idea to leave brand names out of your story entirely unless they are relevant to the plot in some way or another (eg: if a character only drinks a particular brand of cola for some reason). In this case, just use the generic name of the product if it’s fairly well-known and widely-used anyway.
Likewise, for food and drinks, you can use geographically-protected names like “Champagne”, “Cheddar”, “Stilton”, “Parma ham”, “Scotch whisky” etc… (since the labelling laws surrounding these only cover people who actually make and advertise these products).
For example, in your story, it’s usually better to say “I walked into the shop and looked at the cheese rack before picking up a large block of Jarlesberg ” than “I walked into the shop and looked at the cheese rack before picking up a large block of Deilig Jarlesberg”.
3) Sound-alikes: You have to be slightly careful with this one, but another idea for fake product names is to come up with product names that look obviously different from real product names but which either sound slightly similar or use similar imagery. This is probably the most difficult type of fake product name to do well, but it can add a sense of realism to your story if it is done properly. Of course, if you’re actually selling a product with a sound-alike name, then you are likely to end up in legal trouble.
For example, I watched an episode of “NCIS” quite a while ago where part of the plot revolved around analysing several cigarette ends found at a crime scene. Anyway, by using various scientific processes, the detectives were able to work out which brand of cigarettes the suspect had been smoking.
The brand in question was called something like “Talboro”, if I remember rightly. This name is, of course, very reminiscent of a real brand of American cigarettes, but it is different enough to count as a fake product name and to avoid potential lawsuits or accusations of product placement.
4) Don’t use names ending with “o”: This seems to be fairly common in old comic books, where people would come up with a fake product name by just adding “o” to another word which describes what the product does. Personally, I think that this looks obviously fake, old-fashioned and cringe-worthy.
However, this seems to reflect reality to some extent – especially with cleaning projects. I came up with what I thought was an obviously fake product name to use as an example of this and, out of curiousity, entered it into Google. Guess what? It was an actual cleaning product.
5) People, place names and animals: Many products are named after people , places or animals and this can be a good source of realistic-sounding fake product names. However, be sure to enter your fake name into a few search engines to make sure that you haven’t inadvertantly come up with a real product name.
If you are using a person’s name in your product name, then using the name on it’s own will sound more modern (eg: “Henderly Wax”) whereas using “- ‘s” and/or adding extra descriptions will give your product a more old-fashioned feel (eg: “Henderly’s Astonishingly Good Moustache Wax”).
Anyway, I hope that this article was useful 🙂