Morgan Spurlock, the Super Size Me guy, can sometimes be a little hard to stomach. Of all the documentary makers who followed in the footsteps of Michael Moore, Spurlock’s advocacy has often seemed more like naked self-promotion, so much so that his grandstanding sometimes gets in the way of his reporting.
Case in point: his ruinous weight gain in Super Size Me to drive home the notion that junk food can kill you. Spurlock loves pulling stunts, and the projects he’s been involved with since his first notoriety in Super Size Me — What Would Jesus Buy?, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, Freakonomics, etc. — seem to rely on punchlines and juvenile clowning as much as on hard research. He may not actually be light on facts, but he gives that impression.
So when his new film, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, was announced, our reaction was “Now what?” And yes, Spurlock is still inserting himself into stupid game-show-style situations and wallowing in his Morgan-Spurlock-ness. But this time, his target is so juicy we’re inclined to forgive him.
The gag is that in order to demonstrate how prevalent the practice of “branding integration,” aka product placement, has become in American popular culture, Spurlock would deliberately set out to sell his new documentary, from the title to the closing credits. He would raise the entire $1.5 million production cost (ridiculously small for a modern theatrical film, by the way) by letting his sponsors use their logos and advertising content at every appropriate opportunity, according to how much money they put up. Spurlock’s intention is to show what happens to most movies behind closed doors before they hit the multiplexes. The flow of money, the compromises — he even uses the dreaded word “transparency.”
Along the way, while filming himself making “partnering” pitches to companies, he also interviews branding, marketing, and promotional experts for a little background on how the typical piece of entertainment goes through the advertising mill on its way to the minds of the audience. Stealth ads are so widespread we hardly even notice them. That’s the hook in Spurlock’s light-hearted visits to such insiders as Hollywood product placement guru Norm Marshall, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino (he couldn’t pay a corporate sponsor to appear in one of his movies), and public intellectuals Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader, all of whom agree that almost nothing gets made in today’s entertainment marketplace without a little schpritz.
The Los Angeles company Pom Wonderful, which grows and markets pomegranates and products made from them, popped for the naming rights (hence the movie’s sell-out title), and so in all too many establishing shots Spurlock is clutching a bottle of Pom Wonderful juice. Also on board are Jet Blue Airways (Spurlock and his crew have to get around, don’t they?), Hyatt Hotels, Ban roll-on deodorant, Amy’s Kitchen foods, a Pennsylvania chain of convenience stores called Sheetz, and several other medium-profile corporations. The joke brand, Spurlock’s pet sponsor, is Mane ‘n’ Tail, a horse shampoo that humans find agreeable.
This is all good fun, but then, just for some perspective, we’re whisked away to São Paulo, Brazil, where the city has banned all outdoor advertising of any kind — no billboards, bus cards, neon banners (stores are allowed to have a modest sign but nothing more), Jumbotrons, gas pump videos, etc. An official politely explains that the city wanted to fight all types of pollution, and that advertising was considered “visual pollution.” So now São Paulo residents can walk down the street or go to the park and see only buildings and trees. Hmm. The film also takes a scary side-trip to a lab where some seedy-looking men of science have created what they call “neuro-advertising,” in which impulses (fear, craving, sex, Coca-Cola, and so on) are electronically crammed into the brain of an unwary consumer. After his session, Spurlock urgently needs to find a Coke.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is simultaneously appalling and hilarious. It forces us to stop and think about what we might otherwise take for granted — that in our every waking moment (and probably in our dreams, as well) we’re being bombarded with commercials. The kicker, the coup de grace, comes in the film’s epilogue. Consumer advocate supreme Nader, who had admired Spurlock’s pair of Merrell walking shoes, is gifted with a new pair of the same shoes, which he smilingly accepts on camera. That’s it. The war is over. We lost. What time is the next plane to São Paulo?