A word from our sponsor
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, April 22, 2011
There’s an early scene in the advertising-themed documentary “Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” that shows filmmaker Morgan Spurlock taking a test to determine something called his “brand personality.” Yes, people have brands, and Spurlock’s — established with his acclaimed and widely watched 2004 trashing of McDonald’s in “Super Size Me” — is better known than most of his colleagues’, with one obvious exception. (Think of him as a kind of Michael Moore lite, a version of that gonzo documentarian, minus the anger.)
The results of that test? Spurlock’s brand can be characterized, in industry terminology, as a mix of the “playful” and the “mindful.” So, for that matter, can his latest film, which balances a serious subject — rampant commercialization — with great good humor. It’s food for thought that’s fun to eat.
If that last sentence sounds like an ad slogan, it’s not surprising. It’s hard to come out of “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” without a heightened sensitivity to the art of hyping, flacking and product placement. I stepped outside the theater (coincidentally, a short walk from the corporate-sponsored Verizon Center) and couldn’t help seeing somebody trying to sell me something, everywhere I looked.
Like “Super Size Me” — which constructed an examination of the fast-food industry around a month in which Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald’s food — “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” starts with a deceptively simple, but artful shtick. Spurlock resolved to make a movie about advertising (both the obvious kind and subtler varieties like product placement) that was entirely financed by advertising. He approached some 600 companies, 20 of which agreed to cover the film budget, in return for promotional consideration. Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice, for instance, promised $1 million, which entitled it to naming rights. Other companies that also went along include the airline Jet Blue, along with the makers of Ban antiperspirant, the Mini Cooper automobile and Merrell shoes.
But watching Spurlock succeed at this risky game — in which he offers up a critique of commercial co-opting by allowing himself to be commercially co-opted — is only half the fun. Watching him get turned down by, for example, the makers of Mane ‘n Tail shampoo is just as giggle inducing as watching the negotiations with his eventual brand partners. Despite paying nothing, Mane ‘n Tail still appears prominently in the film, with a hilarious fake commercial touting the product’s versatility in cleaning both horse and human hair.
Larded throughout the film are interviews with such film directors as Quentin Tarantino and Brett Rattner (discussing product placement), consumer advocate Ralph Nader and various media experts, academics and social scientists. Municipal leaders from Sao Paulo appear to talk about that Brazilian city’s 2007 decision to ban all forms of outdoor advertising — and the surprising results.
One of Spurlock’s most interesting subjects is Martin Lindstrom, an expert on “neuromarketing,” or how ads affect brain activity, creating almost chemical cravings for products, when in fact what we really crave is the state of mind — let’s call it happiness — that we have been led to believe those products will bring.
Let’s call that a form of brainwashing.
Spurlock doesn’t ever use such a dirty word, but he doesn’t have to. Like the best ad man, he makes his point by making us laugh.
Interestingly, when I came out of “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” I had a slightly higher opinion of the brands that were good natured and self-deprecating enough to sign on to Spurlock’s experiment than I did when I came in. It’s perhaps the ultimate irony then that — as Spurlock pointed out in a post-screening Q&A in which he wore a logo-plastered sport jacket — Pom Wonderful, the company, is being sued by the FTC for false advertising.
Contains some obscenity and brief flashes of nudity.