I am very typical of my age group—Generation X—and aware of how much I’ve been shaped by growing up as part of the first truly globalised generation. Over the last twenty years I’ve witnessed my country being transformed by global corporations: a Starbucks on every corner, the omnipresent logo-isation of clothing and public spaces. The same fashions, technological gadgets, music and movies appear in Glasgow, Dubai, New York and Hong Kong.
I’ve always felt it the task and responsibility of contemporary writers to attempt to record their own time accurately. So, for me, this means writing about a world that has been colonised by brand names. Of course, one can do it as Naomi Klein has done, by writing works of non-fiction, reportage and political journalism, to talk directly about the real impact these corporations have on our lives. But it should also be possible, as a writer of fiction working within realism, to depict this world: to write fiction that exists in the world of Starbucks, Burger King, Victoria’s Secret and Gap, Nike and to use those names in the fiction.
Well, it turns out that this is not the case everywhere. I discovered this recently when I finished writing a book about shopping malls. Media lawyers recommended that I remove all references to specific corporations and brand names, which left me with a bit of a problem.
My book is a collection of short stories interspersed with facts about the history and global expansion of shopping malls, and stories I’ve heard from people who work and shop in malls in Britain and in the United States. In the book I attempted to retell the tales in the most simple, transparent language to let the people and their stories speak for themselves. Then branding law raised its head. Each of the corporations with a presence in malls regularly polices the use of their brand name by others. The author and the reader are then faced with the absurd demand that no real corporation or product names be used in the depiction of a mall. The legal advice I received before publication was ‘take out or change all the brand names’.
A mall without brand names?
Imagine a book about a mall in which every store and product had its name deleted. One could do it just to show how much of the world has to be redacted to satisfy corporate law. For example: ‘Joe decided to stop off in [ ] for a quick [ ], before heading over to [ ] to buy a [ ] for his girlfriend’s birthday.’
This would become more absurd if the author had to come up with new names for products and brands to conceal what these really were, while attempting to imply what they had been before they had been edited out: ‘Joe decided to stop off in Burger Prince for a quick Hipsi-Cola, before heading over to Jennifer’s Discretion to buy a Wunder Brassiere for his girlfriend’s birthday.’
Not only would this be a waste of any writer’s energy, but the reader would become distracted by attempting to decode what the fictional brand names might have been before the change. After all, branding is an important socio-historic fact and a multi-billion dollar industry; real brand identities have been created and tested by advertisers over many decades, and there is even an ‘art’ to this that must be acknowledged. To rename, say, Pepsi as Hipsi would be to misrepresent the status Pepsi has achieved in the world. Surely it is socio-historically important that a character called Ahmed is drinking Pepsi in Afghanistan or a person called Ivan is wearing Nikes in Siberia, or that I might use Virgin for my phone, air travel, train travel, music, home and life insurance. Ironically, if Virgin or Nike, for example, were to remove their names from a text, they would also be losing the opportunity to demonstrate how ubiquitous their brand has become, how our lives have come to depend on them.
Of course, while authors can have their words redacted by corporations, the very same corporations are more than happy to attempt to manipulate public perception of their brands through product placement the arts. For decades they have done it through movies and pop videos, then it moved into computer games, until finally it breached the sanctified space of the novel. Most controversially, in 2001, the jewellery company Bulgari commissioned British author Fay Weldon to write a novel that featured Bulgari products. Twizzlers, Cheerios, Oreo and M&Ms have followed suit, bringing out children’s learning books.
If representations of the world can be manipulated by big corporations, then we will lose the ability to build a true picture of the world we live in. The paradox is that this censorship is occurring while the very brands of which we cannot speak are consuming ever more space in our streets and towns, our media, our culture and our minds.
If branding censorship continues its trajectory, we will soon arrive at a point where storytelling will have to reconcile itself to the limited task of depicting only the worlds that existed before multinational corporations existed. Perhaps we have already arrived at that point, which would explain why so much of the fiction that our era generates is historical fiction, looking backwards to an era before the world became branded.
The legal system that protects corporations from having their brands named was one established in the United States. It regards corporations and their brands as having the same status as ‘individuals’: any mention of a corporation can be viewed as libellous under the same laws that protect persons. Corporations are clearly not individuals, but until such laws are repealed, the simple naming of corporations, even as backgrounds to a human fiction, is potentially litigious.
However, although the United States first spawned such corporations, legal safeguards there can protect authors from their power. The First Amendment allows for negotiation. So it is that Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho could name the brands that his serial killer obsessed over and upon which he built his destructive personality; including Armani and Hugo Boss. No such provision protects British writers, and American corporations regularly exploit the lack of constitutional protection for freedom of speech in Britain to bring cases against those who have mentioned their brand names in printed material in the United States. This is a loophole, an artefact of a legal system developed before modern copyright law. It is a ball and chain weighing down the British author.
My aim in the book was not to defame or criticise any corporations specifically; I simply wished to depict the real and recognisable world in which such brands exist and to do so without deletions or redactions. That is why I decided to use the real names of companies whenever I deemed that a tale (true or fictional) required that information for verification or in the interests of verisimilitude.
Conversely, I chose to modify the names of individuals who told me their tales, and to disguise the names of the malls they worked in. I did this to protect my sources, as many of the anecdotes were humorous and confessional, and certain mall workers wished to remain anonymous. It could be said that I have not extended the same rights to corporations as I did to individuals. Individuals are present in one place only, while brands are transnational; it is simply impossible for an individual to have the same power and influence—in many countries at the same time—that the corporation does today. That corporations are granted ‘personhood’ in law is a historic error that many, across the political spectrum, are seeking to rectify.
My use of real brand names is not political in the Naomi Klein sense, there is no overarching critique in the book. I simply wished to depict the world as accurately as I could. I hoped that the texts would be considered an exercise in free speech and as pieces of modern sociology.
Brands are ubiquitous in the modern world; to have to delete them from our picture would be like having to describe the countryside with the word ‘trees’ deleted. In a world filled with them, we must surely have the right to mention brand names in print and to acknowledge the importance they have in our lives. Otherwise 867 words would be deleted from my book, and it would be no picture of a modern mall at all. The deleted words would become the bigger and more pressing story that still needed to be told.
© Ewan Morrison 2012