As a journalist, one of the most irritating things that can happen to you is to be asked, after half an hour of interviewing a senior figure in a company, when they will get to see your copy before it goes to print.
Not “if”, but “when”: there is an implicit assumption that, in exchange for a few minutes of a CEO or Chairman’s time, anything you choose to write about a business has become that company’s intellectual property.
“Just in case there are any factual errors in the copy”, they say, demonstrating solid respect for your ability. But make the mistake of emailing a draft and it will come back with “errors” like “the market’s third-biggest provider of x by business volume” corrected to “a market leading provider of x solutions”.
It used to be the case – or so I am reliably informed by colleagues who cut their teeth in the “good old days” of business reporting – that companies only ever expected approval over page space they had expressly paid cash to own, i.e. advertisements.
Now, the predominance of PR, and the business world’s collective obsession with reputation, have changed the terms of that arrangement. To large companies, time and even willingness to speak to journalists has become a commodity for which a price – authorial integrity – must be paid.
Given this context, imagine the groaning and rolling of eyes when I discovered that not only did Google enjoy massive exposure and final say over the portrayal of its company and products in Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn’s summer comedy The Internship, but it didn’t pay a bloody penny for the privilege.
When I first saw an advert for the movie (plot summary: two blokes with immensely likable faces become unemployed and scam their way into Google internships), I was astonished: the company logo, in all its merry primary colours, was splashed across the very centre of the poster. “how much did they pay for that?” I exclaimed, my voice climbing to the Meldrew Octave.
The answer, I discovered, after trawling for information using market-leading search provider Google, was that the enormous marketing boon had been delivered in exchange for five days of shooting time at Mountain View, 100 free extras, and extensive consultation on what it means to be a “Googler” (please find me a sick bag).
What’s more, the whole idea was ostensibly Vaughn’s, and not Google’s. A movie star offered to make a 2 hour advert for Google, over which it had creative control, in exchange for a paltry handful of its mountainous resources. And right when Google’s “don’t be evil” reputation needed a shot in the arm, too.
OK, this wasn’t a piece of journalism, and it hardly had the potential to be biting satire either, with or without giving Google a say over the final cut. But when the grievously offensive jokes made by many comedians are grudgingly pardoned for the reason that comedy is sacrosanct to censorship, does it not seem monumentally weak that one of the major comedy releases of the year has been scripted according to the whims of a software company?
In this instance, we’ve only lost the edge from what would have been a low-key feel-good comedy at best. But, although I think the “slippery slope” argument is usually just a poor excuse for hyperbole, it seems hard to ignore the miserable precedent this sets for the role of advertising in media.