'The Internship' integrates product placement ad nauseam

We’ve come a long way since E.T. followed a trail of delicious Reese’s Pieces to a friendship with young Elliott. Today “The Internship” opens, and a new era of product placement hits movie theaters.

In the new comedy, Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn play two laid-off salesmen who go through a lengthy internship process at Google to try to land real jobs at the Internet giant. It’s a fish-out-of-water movie that has the two technology Luddites bumbling their way through a series of competitions that integrate a whole host of Google products right into the story. It also features Google's brand colors embedded in everything from baseball caps to bicycles.

Not since the Meg Ryan-Tom Hanks rom-com “You’ve Got Mail” has a multinational tech company been so important in driving the plot of a big Hollywood movie. (Does anyone remember AOL?)

Characters in “The Internship” do all kinds of new-fangled things that general moviegoing audiences might not know are even possible today. Among other things, they videochat using Google Hangouts, compete against each other using Google Ads, look up people’s social media profiles using Google+ (not Twitter or Facebook, which are way more mainstream) read email via Gmail, and of course use Google’s flagship product, Google Search.

For what it’s worth, Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) prefers Bing, according to a scene in last summer’s “The Amazing Spider-Man.”

And while Wilson and Vaughn have to deal with some insufferably stuck-up, hip twentysomething employees of Google, the message is clear: Google equals cutting-edge technology and useful products.

Last year, when old-school British Secret Service agent James Bond (Daniel Craig) took a drink of a Heineken beer in a commercial tied to the release of "Skyfall" — the biggest Bond ever — rather than his usual martini (“shaken, not stirred”), fans everywhere flipped their lids.

Next week, Warner Bros.’ “Man of Steel” — which has forged big-time relationships with Wal-Mart, Nokia and Chrysler, among others — debuts in theaters with $160 million in its coffers from product placement deals alone. These kind of deals are becoming necessary as the price tag of effects-driven blockbusters continues to soar past $200 million.

Disney and Marvel went international with “Iron Man 3.” China actually got an extended cut of the massive Robert Downey Jr. hit that will never be available to U.S. audiences, even on home video. In addition to adding characters unique to the Chinese version — Dr. Wu (Wang Xueqi) and his unnamed assistant (played by Fan Bingbing) — the four extra minutes of footage include some heavy-handed product placement for a dairy drink made in inner Mongolia.

“What does Iron Man rely on to revitalize his energy?” the onscreen titles ask. Then, “Gu Li Duo.” Apparently, this message appears in theaters before the film starts and features Dr. Wu drinking the milk. In addition, extra shots have been added to show heavy industry company Zoomlion as well as TVs and mobile phones manufactured by Chinese tech company TCL.

We might as well get used to this kind of thing in expensive Hollywood pictures, especially as multi-screen platforms continue to draw people away from seeing movies (which are getting more expensive every year) in the theater.

Kudos then to Mike Myers and “30 Rock” for pioneering some of the funniest and most self-aware examples of product placement. Somehow this the satirical strategy goes down a lot easier, especially when it's just one of a million other pop-culture references.

As Myers would say while opening up a Pizza Hut box and holding up a hot slice of pizza in 1992’s “Wayne’s World,” “I will not bow to any sponsor.”

If only that were true these days, young dude.


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