Last week, prompted by what appeared to be a product integration plot on The Middle that was aimed at boosting the desirability of the iPad, the New Yorker’s television critic Emily Nussbaum laid out a useful distinction between “props (placement) and integration (paid scripted plots.)” I’ve always said that I’m relatively comfortable with television shows, particularly low-rated but beloved ones that are looking to stay alive by tightening their budgets, by striking some deals with corporate sponsors, either for casual product placement, or for the kind of very transparent, self-aware product integration deals that Subway struck with both Chuck and Community. I think I’m somewhat more tolerant than Emily of the idea that my television programs will try to sell me things, if only because I think it’s a self-limiting form of minor evil. There are only so many times per season you can get away with a plot that involves trying to sell me a product, but an infinite number of times you can try to sell me on many other rotten ideas that have a much greater impact than the purchase of computer electronics.
That said, we’re seeing the rise of a very different kind of product integration in popular culture that’s bumping up against my sense of comfort. Increasingly, we’re starting to see shows and movies where product integration isn’t incidental—it’s the frame for the entire product. And it’s selling companies, rather than discrete products.
First, there was CBS’s attempt to put together a show based at Groupon, the online coupon dealer. Now, Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are starring in a movie, The Internship in which they’re interns at Google:
The CBS show didn’t come through, but both it and The Internship have as their premise the idea that the companies where they’re set are innovative, dynamic places full of interesting, admirable people (30 Rock at least sold NBC and GE as not-even-hot messes). Groupon would have been the star of a television show precisely at the point when its daily deal business model was coming under question, as it and competitors like Living Social ran out of companies willing to participate for the first time, and for companies willing to reup after their first experiences. It’s absolutely true that Google has incredible office space—I’ve visited the ones here in DC, which are deeply enviable—but there’s much more to the company than that. Loyalty to an entire company is much, much more valuable to an organization than loyalty to a single product: Apple, and increasingly Amazon are examples of how profitable it can be to lock in a customer for an entire range of their needs, rather than for one of them. And encouraging us to become attached to corporations (as if they were, say, people) may also be a way of encouraging us to look less closely that those companies have, whether it’s the environmental toll of Apple products or labor issues in Amazon’s fulfillment chain.
In other words, it’s a win-win for companies who can sell themselves as settings to Hollywood. It’s a good deal for movie or television productions that can get substantial subsidies by setting shows and movies in corporations. But for me, it’s a decided bridge too far.