'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' Is Buying In

Product Placement Is Explored, Not Bashed, in Latest Morgan Spurlock Film

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Will Morgan Spurlock's new documentary, "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," turn product placement into the greasy fast food of the marketing world? Probably not.

Product placement presents a seemingly tempting and certifiably growing target for someone like Mr. Spurlock. Viewers saw 5,381 major prime-time product placements across 12 major broadcast and cable TV networks last year, up 22% from 2006, according to Nielsen.

Mr. Spurlock, of course, is best known for his 2004 Oscar-nominated documentary, "Super Size Me," which vilified McDonald's and raised awareness around portion size and calorie counts in the process.

Morgan Spurlock
Morgan Spurlock
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 São 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 news.

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 anyone.

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 shocking."

"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 them?

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.

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