Dealing with Company Names When Writing Fiction

This is one that got me thinking. I wrote another 1500 words of DNF this afternoon and finally, my protagonists were able to get hold of their mobile phones. Naturally, they found all of their networks were down and I included a conversation – as we all do – discussing network coverage. I was stuck on whether I could or should use proper company names.

After a bit of digging around, it seems you can mention well-known companies so long as you present the company in a neutral or a positive light. The reason for this is threefold:

  • If you are giving them free advertising, they are unlikely to complain
  • Simply mentioning a well-known business name helps to ground the audience in the real world (however, we have the danger of the text dating very quickly if the business ceases trading)
  • You are not profiting from their name by making a handful of innocuous references in a 100,000 word novel

So basically, so long as the business is not associated with anything negative, you’re okay. There may be a problem if you may implicate a particular company in an incident such as an accident or referencing their unethical practices – whether true or untrue, no matter how mild. I thought this following sentence might seem slightly defamatory, enough that I wouldn’t want to take the risk by referencing a particular brand:

‘I’m with Talk@All though?’ Mike hoped the poor reputation of his network accounted for something at least.

Kate shook her head slowly. ‘So was I until last year and never had a problem here.’

Everybody knows which networks are good in their area and which are not and I’m sure in the US just as in the UK, some mobile networks have a poor reputation for coverage in certain areas and not in others. I decided to go with inventing business names, even in the same section when I mention another invented business.

‘Great, so the phones are out. I got yours for you too Jim.’ Mike handed Jim his phone; he checked it over quickly, confirmed that he too had no signal. ‘I’m with Fluid Net, never had problem with coverage anywhere around here. No signal, not a single bar.’

I stuck with another invented company because using a well-known brand alongside a fictional one may jar readers. Either only use well-known businesses or don’t use them at all is my philosophy.

Remember, the UK has the most stringent libel laws in the world. If in doubt, leave it out.

Under what circumstances might you want a fictional corporation?

Villain: The most obvious is when the antagonist works for them, and employment of the protagonist is fundamental to the story, or if the company is the antagonist. The most famous example of this is Weyland-Yutani in the Alien series (though in the first film they are referred to – I believe – purely as “The Company”). If you wish to portray a villainous entity with fingers in many pies, holding governments to ransom, stifling competition, polluting the environment and generally harming people then you most certainly will want to invent a business. This will also give you some flexibility in thinking about their business interests.

This concept is used to great effect in Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series. The primary antagonist is a character called Jack Schitt who works for a business entity that is universally recognised as pretty much in charge of every industry (they are called Goliath). Everybody knows they are not a pleasant corporation with no ethical policy… but they have no choice but to buy their products because in this world there is no competition. In the later books, they convert to a religion to avoid paying tax amongst other things  (or as they call it a Faith-Based Corporate Mission Statement or words to that effect).

Familiarity for satire: In some instances you can create fictional business with a name similar to a real famous business for comedic effect. What do I mean by this? Take the Monkey Island video games. Our hero Guybrush Threepwood laments commercialisation of the pirate lifestyle including the arrival on his island of a pirate theme coffee bar called Starbuckaneers. In the UK comedy series The IT Crowd – a series about the people who work on a company’s helpdesk, they invented social media site FriendFace and microblogging site Quipper.

The Quentin Tarantino Approach: It’s a well-known fact that Quentin Tarantino abhors product placement even though his films do make passing references to well-known brands. For anything more prominent – the sort of things typically filled by product placement, he has invented a number of companies to use over and over again. This becomes pop culture in itself when “companies” such as Red Apple Cigarettes (appearing in Four Rooms and Kill Bill), Big Kahuna Burger (which is part of Pulp Fiction’s most famous scene also appears in Reservoir Dogs, From Dusk Til Dawn and Deathproof).

Tips for Inventing a Business

Firstly, make sure that the company – or one with a similar name – does not already exist. Talk@All, the company I invented above was my third choice. I initially wanted Talk4All but found there are several mobile phone companies with that name or names similar to it. The second was Talk2All which also already exists in several countries. Finally, I settled on Talk@All.

It’s possible that Talk@All also exists somewhere in the world. If they do, they do not have a website, which for a technology company makes it a safe bet that no such business exists. If they do, then it’s possible I have inadvertently mildly libelled their company. This is why it is a good idea to include the famous “all persons fictitious” disclaimer with the added element of including businesses.

2 responses to “Dealing with Company Names When Writing Fiction”

  1. I have wondered about this before. Thanks for clearing things up for me.

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