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16 October 2011

The Greatest Documentary I've Ever Watched (This Month)

Somehow, I find Morgan Spurlock documentaries much less annoying than those made by Michael Moore, although that said, the only of Spurlock's films I had seen previously was Super Size Me, and I'm more biased against Moore after having him foisted upon me as the surprise film at the 2009 London Film Festival. Anyway, having done wonders for the reputation of McDonald's in Super Size Me, Spurlock is now turning his hand to the issue of product placement in movies. And of course, being Morgan Spurlock, he does this by making a documentary about product placement, which is funded entirely through product placement. The result is The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, or to give it its full title, Pom Wonderful Presents...The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.


After a brief introduction, illustrating how advertising is impinging upon most aspects of our lives and that we don't always--or even often--realise that it is happening, Spurlock makes a start on the task of finding sponsors for the film. From the offset, the film is very meta: his discussions with brand managers about how their product would appear in the film end up being the main body of the film, and, towards the end, Spurlock is being interviewed on a US talk show about the film, which would apparently be released in the US later that week (I assume this bit was actually pre-recorded because otherwise, I'm not sure there would be enough time to edit the clip into the film). Naturally, a lot of the big brands he first approaches aren't interested; they saw what he did to McDo and don't want to be stitched up in the same way.

But before too long, Spurlock manages to sign up about 12 sponsors, including lead sponsor Pom Wonderful, whose name appears in the movie title and who get a 30-second commercial starring Spurlock woven seamlessly (well, almost seamlessly) into the movie. Also on board are a hotel chain, a low-cost airline, a chain of gas stations, and the makers of Mane and Tail--shampoo that can be used by humans and horses. Spurlock apparently comes across the latter brand in a drug store and is wildly amused but Mane and Tail's approach may be more tongue in cheek than it initially appears because they seem to get a lot of product placement and co-branding requests and they make a point of never paying for this (a note at the end of the film explains that they didn't pay to appear in the film, and yet we get to see Spurlock's idea for a commercial involving him, his son and a Shetland pony in a bath played out within the documentary).

Along the way, Spurlock interviews various people from Noam Chomsky (with his linguistics hat on) and Ralph Nader, to Quentin Tarantino and a neuro-marketing expert. The latter helps Spurlock with his trailer by putting him in an MRI scanner and analysing which version of the trailer causes the best combination of brain areas to light up. As for Tarantino, he complains that Denny's never wanted to pay for their restaurants to appear in Reservoir Dogs or Pulp Fiction; the director of Rush Hour, is just pragmatic: the money has to come from somewhere. A few examples of incongruous verbal product placement in TV shows are given, which makes me think of Gossip Girl, which is or was sponsored by Bing, and so every few episodes, a character would say, "Just Bing it," which, of course, no one says in real life, much as Microsoft would like them to.

The main difference between Spurlock and Moore, I think, is that Spurlock likes to inform and entertain, whereas Moore seems to prefer to preach. Of course Spurlock wants to be provocative and to evoke a reaction, but while I came out of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold chuckling, after the end of Capitalism: A Love Story, I had had more than enough of Moore's ranty invectives. And for me, informative entertainment is what I want from a documentary, so round two definitely goes to Spurlock.

On a related note, the movie poster, pictured above, really reminds me of the anti-hero in Charles McLeod's American Weather, who comes up with the genius idea of live broadcasting death-row executions on national TV and selling advertising space on the prisoners' bodies. This book makes a nice, darkly satirical companion to The Greatest Movie Ever Sold...

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