The Internship's Great Google Debate: A Clever Location Is Not Product Placement

By Sean O'Connell 2013-06-05 12:02:54discussion comments
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“Hold on, hold on,” Tweets IndieWire’s Matt Singer. “There was Google product placement in The Internship? Totally missed that.”

It’s a funny joke, and one being made often lately at the expense of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s latest collaboration, The Internship. Mike Ryan of The Huffington Post went so far as to call the film “a two-hour commercial for Google,” summarizing late in his semi-review: “If I pay for a movie, it shouldn't be a two-hour piece of propaganda for a corporation, no matter how ‘neat’ that corporation may be.”

Ryan references blatant product placement in past movies, from Pepsi and Mountain Dew being shoehorned into Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future. But I think what’s happening in The Internship is completely different, and doesn’t deserve the beating it’s getting by select writers turned off by perceived product placement.

The Internship isn’t solely an ad campaign for a popular tech company, but rather an occasionally comical and frequently poignant look at career salesmen who are being told that their professions are outdated, that the world rapidly passed them by simply because they chose a career track that – thanks to advancements in technology – no longer exists. Vaughn and Wilson’s characters sold watches. No one wears a watch today, unless it’s to be ironic. But they aren’t retirement-age guys. These are dudes in their mid-40s who must find something else to do now that the thing they did is done.

That’s a terrifying reality too many people have faced or currently face in our ever-shifting economy. So Vaughn -- who receives both a “Story By” and a co-screenwriting credit on The Internship -- comes up with a high-concept idea, sending two past-their-prime workers to the hub of cutting-edge tech thinking in hopes of landing competitive jobs. And he happened to land Google as a partner on the movie, which from every angle make perfect sense.

"This is not a two-hour commercial for Google. We didn't pay for anything, and we didn't charge for anything," a Google spokesperson told Australia’s Courier Mail. "About two years ago, Vince Vaughn actually came to Google with this idea for a film. They toured the campus, had lunch with 10 people or so, just talking about what it was like to work at Google. [Vaughn] wanted to capture the essence of what Google culture looks like. It was very important for him to get that right."

The Internship Google

The authenticity achieved by filming at Google or using their likeness adds another layer to The Internship that would have been comically pathetic if they pretended to get jobs at a company that blatantly was supposed to be Google but wasn’t because they didn’t get the rights. Part of the fun of watching the film is eyeballing the backgrounds of Shawn Levy’s shots to see what kind of creative activity is happening in the Google sequences. Mind you, some of the film was shot in Atlanta on sets that replicated Google’s campus, but the tone of Google’s workplace was conveyed by Vaughn and Levy in a way that benefits the company and the story.

How exactly is Google portrayed in The Internship? Probably exactly as you might have imagined. The campus is a bustling hive of activity, where employees ride colorful bikes, consistently brainstorm on new apps or products, enjoy free food and compete in exaggerated intramural activities. There are lines weaved into the screenplay about Google’s “mission” to make the world a better place … and yes, Vaughn likely added those as a “Thank you” to the corporate giant for helping out on various levels.

Is it product placement, though, if an entire story is set at an actual location? And what product is The Internship supposed to be shilling? Unlike Pepsi, which is referenced in the aforementioned Back to the Future, Gmail and the subsequent Google tools talked about in the comedy are free options. Should Vaughn have turned Google down in an effort to protect his artistic integrity? I think that would have been crazy. I think the ability to use Google helps the story being told in The Internship, because these guys are supposed to compete against the cream-of-the-crop of college graduates looking to break into the tech sect. And where are those kids going to go?

Locations are key in certain comedies. When a filmmaker is able to shoot in them to achieve authenticity, I don’t think it’s product placement – more of a happy marriage between a recognizable brand and a storyteller who needs their assistance to lend credence to the vision. The FBI cooperates with Clint Eastwood when he films J. Edgar. Levy works with the Smithsonian museums while filming scenes for his Night at the Museum sequel. The Miami Dolphins loan Jim Carrey Dan Marino for the first Ace Ventura movie. They are components of the story being told, and different from product placement. Do you agree? Check out The Internship, and decide for yourself.
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