Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: When product placement attacks

30 comments

The new Vince Vaughn/Owen Wilson comedy The Internship is being marketed as a Wedding Crashers reunion, but it's getting far more attention for how shamelessly it appears to be a movie-length ad for Google.

The film, which hits New Zealand theatres this week, stars Vaughn and Wilson as two middle-aged pals competing against a bevy of younger, hungrier interns for a permanent role at the headquarters of the world's largest search engine.

Aside from bending over backwards to factor in the Google offices' famously pleasant working conditions (free food - OMG!), the film is remarkable for how it winds its plot around Google's various products and services.

An appreciatation/tolerance for Vaughn's shouty comedy stylings may carry you through most of this theatrically-released infomercial, but by the time the emotional climax rolls around - in which our protagonists heroically convince a pizza store owner that advertising with Google will solve all his problems - even the least-demanding comedy fan will be rolling their eyes.

It effectively demonstrates the perils of an increasingly prominent part of the movie business - product placement.

Product placement used to be a quieter phenomenon, but with movie studios are more and more desperate to leverage their investments, brand name products are filling out the edges of our movies more than ever. Morgan Spurlock investigated this trend in his 2011 film The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

The Internship is so shameless, it barely falls into the category of product placement - this is more product-as-movie, with a few characters and jokes thrown in for credibility's sake.

The key to effective product placement is of course execution. Pulling it off without yanking the viewer out of the reality of the movie is a delicate art, and nobody seems to have come up with a formula for making it work.

I'm not saying there shouldn't be brand names in movies - they can function well as storytelling touchstones. Making it seem organic is very tricky, though.

Robert Zemeckis' Cast Away is an example of a brand name playing a central role in film - in this case Federal Express - without it really offending too many people. The association was most definitely positive for the company, who didn't pay the filmmakers a cent.

At the time it was released, a lot of reaction pointed out the interpretation of Cast Away as a advertisement for Federal Express, but that hasn't really been part of the film's legacy. Maybe no money changing hands is the key here.

I always the thought the constant brand-referencing in the TV show Entourage felt pretty realistic. The makers maintained that none of it was paid for, and the brands featured where just the kind of crap four rich idiots would go gaga over.

The upcoming comedy This Is The End (which is awesome!) features an early scene in which Seth Rogan and Jay Baruchel (playing themselves) celebrate Baruchel's arrival in Los Angeles by gorging on Carl's Jr burgers. The moment felt kinda 50/50 to me - this was a believable occurrence in the world of the film, but it was also pretty obvious that Carls Jr. had paid for the privilege.

Rogan's mentor Judd Apatow is pretty good at organically working brand names into his films and TV shows, but I suppose stories about dudes sitting around talking shit lend themselves to this sort of thing.

Apatow's old pal (and collaborator) Adam Sandler is much less subtle with his product placement, but it's gotten to the point now where I'm always curious to see which restaurant chain he will visit in each subsequent movie. Happy Gilmore was Subway. Little Nicky was Popeye's. Big Daddy was McDonalds. Mr. Deeds was Wendy's. And so on. Shameless sure, but it feels like there's an element of transparency here.

The upcoming zombie movie World War Z features a key moment involving a drinks machine filled with Pepsi. I would've been okay with this if Brad Pitt's character didn't pause during the action to enjoy a sip.

The James Bond series tends to get a pass on this sort of thing - from the Aston Martin onwards, slick branding has always been part of the series. But I found it very jarring in Skyfall when the staff of MI6 paused to enjoy a cool, refreshing Heinekin moments after their headquarters were blown up in a terrorist attack.

The most egregious example of product placement in the history of cinema puts even The Internship to shame - 1988's Mac and Me. Can you guess the brand it promotes? Clue: It's in the title of the movie.

Aside from being an utterly shameless rip-off E.T., Mac and Me names its main character after a burger and works McDonald's into the plot every chance it gets, and then some. There's even a bizarre impromptu dance scene set in a McDonald's. Because, y'know, that's what happens when you go to McDonald's.

Ronald McDonald himself even introduces the freaking trailer, which attempts to offset the unpleasant odour of the whole thing by announcing that a portion of the proceeds of the film would go to Ronald McDonald's Childrens Charities. I bet even the most downtrodden kids would rather starve than be associated with such a misguided folly.

McDonald's got their hooks into the otherwise unmemorable 1995 romantic comedy Bye Bye Love, which includes an inordinate number of scenes set in the restaurant, and features a subplot in which and eldery McDonald's employee bonds with his whipper snapper co-worker. Ugh.

Economic realities suggest product placement is only going to increase as time goes on, but with all other developments in cinema driven by a supposed desire to enhance realism, Hollywood seems to have a blindspot when it comes to this surefire suspension-of-disbelief killer.


Is the Google-ness of The Internship putting you off it? Does product placement offend you in general? What are some other terrible examples? Comment Below!

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

Sort by
  • Oldest

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_a4 at 24 Aug 2014 09:04:21 Processing Time: 661ms