‘The Internship’ and the Cultural Significance of Brand-Integrated Movies

By  · Published on June 5th, 2013

One of the main criticisms I’m hearing about The Internship is that it’s all one big advertisement for Google with little else of substance. This isn’t surprising, but it is very disappointing. When you have a movie with such prominent brand-integration it should go beyond the idea of product placement. The Internship shouldn’t be set at Google because they worked a deal with that company, whether financially beneficial to either side or not. The Internship ought to be set at Google only because its story couldn’t be about or set at any another company than Google any more than The Social Network could have changed the name of Facebook in its script or a Steve Jobs biopic could rename the company he started.

Of course, those two examples are true stories. But either would still be stronger for their relevance to the era and to what their stories are ultimately about even if they weren’t based on real events. It helps that Facebook is more than a brand now. And so is Apple. And so is Google. The fact that people groan when they see Peter Parker use Bing, an obvious product placement, rather than the more widely accepted Google search engine proves that we don’t think of the company the same way we think of Reese’s Pieces or whatever random car manufacturer is willing to spend the money for a close-up.

I haven’t seen The Internship yet, so I can’t speak to how much the story is dependent on that brand over any other tech company. I don’t even know if the sort of company is vital to the point of the movie outside of the ability to have jokes based around the idea of the main characters being so unhip to that world. Is it just the equivalent of White Castle’s involvement with Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle and Tiffany & Company with Breakfast at Tiffany’s? This movie isn’t titled “The Google Internship,” though it may as well be. Google was far more involved in the brand placement and overall production of the film than the companies tied to those earlier films. Similar to them, however, as well as to FedEx’s permission for its brand involvement in Cast Away, Google apparently did not pay for any product placement.

The Internship could wind up being more like You’ve Got Mail, a brand-integrated film that today feels both laughable and still noteworthy as representing its time. The Shop Around the Corner remake didn’t really have to employ AOL as its onscreen email provider of choice, let alone title the movie after a trademark element of the brand, yet it is true that the majority of regular folk were using their service in 1998. And its specific placement fits the themes of changing times and near-monopolization of markets by the growing concept of super companies (the irony to be found now with You’ve Got Mail is how Barnes and Noble/Borders and AOL were soon supplanted by Amazon and Google as their respective industry’s giants). Again, no money was exchanged for this placement and the Internet brand’s reputation was as on the line with the movie’s reception as Google now is with The Internship.

As I already noted, Google is different from all these other examples because it’s more than just a product and even more than just a brand. It’s a larger part of culture. We say “Google” as a verb in place of “search” in the same way we might say “a coke” as any soda not just a Coke. While we’re still years away from seeing just how significant Google is to history and the world and human culture, it does seem at least aimed at being as big as Coca-Cola, a brand that goes beyond just being a beverage. For at least as long as 70 years, since World War II, Coca-Cola has been a symbol of America, of the West in general, of capitalism and of cultural colonialism. It’s the reason a Coke bottle is the only object that could have been at the center of a film like The Gods Must Be Crazy and why a Coca-Cola ad was the only possible kind to figure into the plot of Goodbye Lenin!

Those two movies mostly use the symbol as a prop, however. There’s not really any brand integration the way there was in Billy Wilder’s rapid-fire 1961 comedy One, Two, Three, which is very specifically about an executive heading up the Coca-Cola plant in West Berlin (the exec is played by James Cagney, also sort of an intentionally employed symbol of America post-Yankee Doodle Dandy; also that plant later features in Goodbye Lenin!) and his dilemma of having his boss’s teenage daughter show up and then get knocked up by a communist from East Germany. There’s a hilarious contrast in ideals at play, as the exec means to get Coke introduced to the Soviet Union (“Napoleon blew it, Hitler blew it, but Coca-Cola’s gonna pull it off,”) and the young man wants to procreate for the good of the communists (“a bouncing baby Bolshevik,” he calls it). They each have their own ways of implanting their political-cultural influence. In its review, “Time” magazine even used the term “Coca-Colonization” in reference to the former idea.

For some reason, Wilder seems to have not owned up to the necessity of One, Two, Three (originally based a 1929 Hungarian play) involving the Coca-Cola brand. He reportedly claimed he simply did not like making up brands for films because then “believability goes out the window,” and the reason for choosing Coke here was that he’d had the protagonist of Love in the Afternoon work for Pepsi-Cola and now he was giving the other guys a turn (Pepsi shows up in a gag at the end of One, Two, Three, allegedly because of Joan Crawford, who was then newly widow of Pepsi head Alfred Steele). As for the other side, Coca-Cola was happy to receive the publicity, though they might not have been especially satisfied with the way they’re portrayed (the former Nazis being employed at the plant must have especially made them upset). Whether related to overall unhappiness or not, they did threaten to sue the studio for initially featuring a Coke bottle in the poster design.

Decades later, the company had a more favorable response to The Coca-Cola Kid, an Australian movie that similarly had its hero working for Coke and trying to expand its distribution. The film didn’t even try to make a deal with the company, which is said to avoided legal matters when they saw that their image was positive and so it could only do good rather than harm for their business. Oddly, the movie wasn’t distributed by Columbia Pictures in the U.S., which might have made sense since Coca-Cola owned the studio at the time. The very fact that they were in the film business, though, was enough to further prove their brand was more a cultural entity than a soda maker.

I wouldn’t be at all shocked if Google one day gets into the movie biz if they continue to grow as a company. They already have a hand in digital distribution of films. But perhaps we’ll have to see how they fare if The Internship isn’t a success or if it makes the brand-integration to be as off-putting for some viewers as AOL’s was with You’ve Got Mail (and to a less-cooperated degree with One, Two, Three, which wasn’t a hit in part because it made light of the Cold War, which got even more serious before its release thanks to the Berlin Wall being erected during post-production). It already has enough of a problem with movies this year thanks to the documentary Google and the World Brain highlighting one of the company’s major missteps and making them out to seem like the closest thing to Skynet.

Particularly due to their having some public image problems of late and especially due to The Social Network being more recognized as a film of our times and our present culture than anything negative about Facebook as a company and brand, Google might wish The Internship wasn’t just giving them a soft spotlight. And the studio and makers of the comedy ought to have pushed for something more relevant while also being a silly comedy. More than anything else, One, Two, Three is in fact a speedy slapstick farce with lots of broad physical comedy and other lowbrow appeal in addition to the satire. Surely, The Internship’s use of Google will lend itself to some cultural discourse regarding the company’s significance but it’s unlikely we can really look to what the film itself does with the brand other than play off its familiarity.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.