Google Has Taught Us What A Product Placement Disaster Looks Like

Procter and Gamble needed to sell soap.

It was 1933. The company realized that the soap-buying population of America — at that time, female homemakers — was at home in the middle of the day and needed some entertainment. And this was the birth of sponsored content: The Soap Opera. Aggressive product placement and slushy drama shot P&G to the top, starting with radio and eventually making the transfer to television.

The Genesis of Cool 

Around that same time Clark Gable took off his shirt. He was staring in the movie It Happened One Night. Gable was not wearing an undershirt. According to several sources American men took note and undershirt sales plummeted by 75 percent. No one sponsored this trend but it did set a precedent: consumers learning the art of cool from Hollywood, and their purchasing habits reflecting it.

Tom Cruise slid into Risky Business with statement Ray-BansBack To The Future attempted to teach audiences the value of a Pepsi — and even Apple isn’t too cool for product placement, with its laptops popping up in Mission: Impossible and The Darjeeling Limited. 

Although product placement has been known to resurrect struggling brands, it’s not all sales spikes and happy fans. The latest James Bond film, Skyfallwas criticized last fall when a reported $45 million marketing deal introduced Heineken beer into famed spy 007’s shaken-not-stirred, vodka-martini-only diet. And this summer, before even leaving Krypton, Superman had raised a whopping $160 million in product placement from sponsors like Gillette razors and Twizzler candy. According to BusinessWeek, the $160 million makes Man of Steel the film with the most lucrative product placements of all time. At times it was a little bit too much.

Procter and Gamble give us free drama, James Bond attempts to make beer look sexy, and Superman dictates our razor selection. Our sponsored content diet is much more than branded BuzzFeed articles, and it is coming at us from every industry.

But however commonplace it’s become over the past few decades, it’s still possible to spend a ton of money getting it totally wrong.

Enter Google

After an watching a segment about Google on “60 Minutes,” actor Vince Vaughn zeroed in on “Googler” culture as the target for his next project. And he even got Google to cooperate with its production. This seemed like a good thing at the time.

Last month “The Internship,” Vaughn’s buddy comedy about the Google internship program, opened to roomtemperature reviews from movie critics and snippy criticism from the rest of the media. The movie has failed to make up its $58 million production budget at the box office and quickly scuttled into forgettable, bad summer movie oblivion. However, its real problem was the “Google rules” theme that ran through the entire film. It was cheesy at best and frustratingly irritating at worst.

Google's involvement with The Internship was so tight that one of its Google Street View cars showed up to the film's premiere. (Photo credit: Joe Seer /

Google’s involvement with The Internship was so tight that one of its Google Street View cars showed up to the film’s premiere. (Photo credit: Joe Seer /

Although no monetary exchange took place, “The Internship” director Shawn Levy paid a high price for an insider look: Google got creative control over all product placement. Google even went as far removing a scene in which one of the company’s famous self-driving cars crashes. According to CNN, “Google says it didn’t mind the car being in the movie, but thought that scene wasn’t appropriate because “the product hadn’t launched yet.”

The Internship’s slanted portrayal of Google is completely mismatched with what you’d expect from a company that usually knows how to laugh at itself.

In an article titled “The Internship, a $60m PR blowjob for Google that thankfully flopped,” The Guardian asks “What demographic, exactly, wants to watch Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson buffing up the search giant’s image as a groovy place to work?” The Guardian calls attention to a great point: The self-congratulatory way that Google ensured its brand was treated in the movie meant that an otherwise passable comedy became truly bad.

Indeed, all of this would have been forgivable, dismissable as just another summer flop if Google’s integrity weren’t on the table. A mediocre movie is one thing, a tarnished brand image is another. Google’s insistence on creative control was overbearing and off-putting, and audiences could easily tell.

Being so image-conscious in an otherwise comedic context is particularly incongruous with Google’s typically charming and self-effacing  style. Who can forget the company’s gaggle of April Fool’s jokes this year — including one that poked fun at the company’s occasional bad press for shutting down little-used but beloved products by claiming it was going to shut down YouTube — or the Google Doodles that delight the internet every holiday (and every random you-didn’t-know-it-was-a-holiday)? The Internship’s slanted portrayal of Google is completely mismatched with what you’d expect from a company that usually knows how to laugh at itself.

The more brands venture into new kinds of product placement, or collaborative branded content, the more important it is that they are genuine and not overly self-indulgent in their content production. Google’s mistake has, at very least, cost them credibility points and should serve as a lesson to other brands: Audiences see enough TV commercials to know one when they see one, and turning a movie into a commercial can ruin it. Make it quality, or don’t make it at all.

Image by Matusciac Alexandru /
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