McDonald's and TBWA have disavowed any involvement in a short film chronicling a jaded adman's experiences making commercials in China.
"Sunshine" follows American freelance producer John Benet as he works for TBWA on a McDonald's campaign in China. The film was directed by Doug Nichol of Partizan, who was also the director of the ad campaign. It has left the industry buzzing for its nuanced and insightful portrayal of the advertising profession. At one point, Mr. Benet voices frustrations common to the industry, wondering aloud whether he's squandering his creative talents on crass commercialism. At another, he discusses the luxuries, travel and unique experiences afforded by the job.
But the 15-minute film is seen through the lens of China, which has a fast-growing, yet immature, advertising industry not known for groundbreaking work. The film shows the creative process, warts and all, including scenes where Mr. Benet is told his preferred actors are not "sunshine" enough and where he speaks with disdain about the creative views of the client -- McDonald's. He also wonders aloud if advertising is corrupting Chinese culture.
"When we travel we want to experience something different. It just feels the same," Mr. Benet says during shots of commercial areas in Shanghai. "It's my job to sell that sameness."
The film shows the making of two actual McDonald's commercials. The fast feeder voiced its disapproval, saying it had never given the green light for its inclusion.
"We did not authorize it. As a company we don't encourage releasing our projects without informing us or getting our approval," said Sophia Luan, vice president for corporate affairs and communications at McDonald's China. "(The marketing team) didn't authorize any individual to use our project as an example."
Ms. Luan declined further comment on "Sunshine," saying she had not yet seen it. The film is posted on video-sharing site Vimeo, which is blocked in China.
TBWA, which handles McDonald's in China, also indicated it had nothing to do with the making of the documentary.
"TBWA also did not authorize use of any of this footage and we find it disappointing that a director would take it upon himself to show material that wasn't authorized by the agency or our client," said Brian Swords, brand team leader for McDonald's in China, who had not yet joined the agency when the film was made.
Added Ian Thubron, president of TBWA Greater China: "The director chose to make a film about his experiences in which part of that was shooting a commercial for TBWA. Further than that , the agency has no comment."
"Sunshine" includes scenes from creative planning meetings, the set of the commercials and what appears to be footage from the actual spots. TBWA's name is even featured in one shot in the film, on a Communist propaganda-style label on the side of a bag.
According to Mr. Nichol, the documentary wasn't planned beforehand. Rather, it was born from his experiences during the production and from his experimentation with the movie function of one of his cameras, a Canon5D. Mr. Nichol said he shot what was happening around him throughout the process and toward the end of the trip, and after he saw how charismatic his production partner John Benet was, did he realize he had the material for a film. He said the agency was aware of his additional shooting -- although no one knew at the time he would make a documentary -- and "no one ever made a fuss. I even have plenty of footage of them hamming it up for the camera on set. They were enjoying themselves," Mr. Nichol said.
As for the unauthorized footage, Mr. Nichol said all the film's content "was shot on my 5D. I filmed a few shots off the monitor that they may be getting confused as being '35mm footage.' I think anything I showed of McDonald's, food-wise, was quite appealing. At the end of the day, the film is not about McDonald's or the agency -- it was about John, his travels in China and his thoughts on work."
On his part in the matter, Mr. Benet said: "I didn't have an agenda toward McDonald's. And the folks we worked with in China were good, nice people, and I never had any intention of causing them any trouble. In terms of the content of 'Sunshine,' I can only speak as the subject of the film and the things I said, and I can honestly say I didn't think the film would go beyond a few film festivals and being on a short-film website. I knew it was a risky venture and might ruffle some feathers if it got back to China, but I didn't see it getting a wide enough audience where that would happen. And I thought the piece had enough of a sense of humor where it might not be taken so seriously. It seemed like a fun and honest little movie. Everyone seemed to love it and didn't find it so controversial, which I have to admit I was personally paranoid about."
But the short [included below] has gotten plenty of traction. It's snagged 77,000 views so far on Vimeo and has been selected for inclusion at several film festivals.
Despite the client and agency reaction, Mr. Nichol said, "I loved the experience of making the short and being in China and working with the TBWA team there. I'm sorry that they took this the wrong way, and look forward to a few laughs someday over a bottle of Tsing Tao."
Mr. Benet, on the other hand, is a bit more cautious. "I have to admit, if I'd known 'Sunshine' was going to become what it has I would have been more careful about the things I said, but I guess since I never expected so much to come of it -- certainly not that I'd be defending it in a magazine article; I just said what was on my mind, which maybe isn't always the best idea, especially in terms of my job security."
Contributing: Ann-Christine Diaz