But this amiable, entertaining documentary funded entirely through
product placement isn't necessarily trying to change anything.
The movie does make worthwhile stops along a familiar tour of
advertising's wrongs. Mr. Spurlock and the film's talking heads
note our lives' inescapable saturation with ads; marketers'
self-interested influence over our culture; ads' insinuation that
we're lacking unless we buy products; and marketers' hooks in
children. When the movie visits S?o Paulo, Brazil, which has banned
outdoor advertising, the audience marvels at its uncluttered
cityscape and envies residents who can walk down the street without
having to constantly fend off marketing slogans.
Mr. Spurlock doesn't, however, spend much time building a case
that product placement or advertising in general hurts anybody very
much. Instead he primarily maps where and how marketing is marching
these days. So he slides into a functional MRI machine to report on
neuromarketing, for example, which comes off as creepily as ever.
"Is neuromarketing evil?" he asks Martin Lindstrom, chairman of
Buyology. "Advertising as a concept is manipulation," Mr. Lindstrom
answers. It's a little unsettling, but not exactly breaking
Mr. Spurlock also shows us examples of overpowering product
placement, with clips from NBC's "Chuck" and the CW's "90210" in
which characters name products to the point of embarrassment. These
integrations are so crass, though, that they can't possibly deceive
any consumers. They sully TV shows, but they aren't fooling
The cultural effects of "Super Size Me," in which Mr. Spurlock's
steady diet of McDonald's quickly hurt his health, drew a lot of
energy from the movie's shock value. "I'm an overweight guy; I know
the issue," said Georges Benjamin, executive director at The
American Public Health Association. "Having said that, I've seen
the movie several times. I still find it very informative. And to
me the more telling part of 'Super Size Me' was the fact that he
saw challenges to his health so quickly. That was pretty
"Super Size Me" probably did bring a little bit more awareness
to some of the negative effects of fast food, said R.J. Hottovy, a
senior analyst at Morningstar who covers McDonald's. "And
ultimately I think it probably had an impact on making McDonald's
be a leader when it comes to healthier alternatives," he said.
But there's nothing shocking in the current film. People
probably already catch and understand most product placement. "From
the days that movies started, when someone was smoking a cigarette
we knew that someone placed that cigarette there," said Jeffrey
Hayzlett, the former Kodak CMO who's now an industry consultant.
"No one's been hiding it."
In addition to POM Wonderful, the sponsors of "The Greatest
Movie Ever Sold" include JetBlue, Hyatt Hotels & Resorts, Mini
Cooper, Merrell shoes, Sheetz convenience stores, Amy's Kitchen
food, Thayers Natural Remedies, Seventh Generation home products,
MovieTickets.com, the Aruba Tourism Authority and Ban deodorant.
They all come off pretty well, playing along with Mr. Spurlock's
premise and getting some exposure in the process. And because so
much of it is negotiated on camera, they emerge as the most
transparent brand integrators in the history of the form.
"We decided to participate not only because we admire Morgan's
work as a filmmaker, but also as a way to show that we don't take
ourselves or the industry so seriously that we can't have fun,"
said Karen Frank, VP for U.S. skin-care marketing at Kao Brands,
which sells Ban.
The only participating brand that has to struggle for Mr.
Spurlock's respect is Original Mane 'n Tail, a line of hair
products for both people and horses that he finds while prospecting
store aisles for potential sponsors. "You gotta love a product that
says 'Instructions for Human Use' and then 'Instructions for Animal
Use,'" he says, cracking up as he reads a bottle.
Executives at the brand prove to be good sports when he
cold-calls them, so the movie eventually includes a funny
commercial for it. (The audience also learns that The Original Mane
'n Tail did not pay for its appearance in the film -- a disclosure
it required in its contract.)
As the movie progresses, Mr. Spurlock seems to decide that
advertising's effect on consumers is less disturbing than its
effect on the people who participate in it. Once you open the door
to being "brand friendly," he decides, the door stays open. Mr.
Spurlock isn't selling out, a guy wearing a sandwich board in Times
Square assures him, but Mr. Spurlock doesn't seem convinced.
There's not much that can be done about any of this anyway, Mr.
Spurlock seems to conclude. One of the final moments of the
documentary shows Ralph Nader giggling as he opens a box of Merrell
shoes that Mr. Spurlock has given him. "Payola!" Mr. Nader yells
happily. He's joking around, but he's also doing a pretty good
impression of a guy who likes free shoes. Who doesn't like
Maybe all a consumer can do, Mr. Spurlock says, is go outside,
take a nice long walk and locate some places without advertising.
He and his son demonstrate this on screen by playing in a stream.
He's wearing, of course, Merrell shoes.
Follow Nat Ives on Twitter.