Advertising isn't new to entertainment at all, folks. In fact, in the last century, both radio and TV broadcasts were sponsored by major companies pushing everything from cigarettes to cars to cereal and dishwashers. Soap operas were in fact, heavily reliant on pushing laundry detergent to a mostly female audience (though that selling point was phased out over time, the name stuck). However, these days, it's gotten to an over-saturation point where too many films,TV and even news shows are non-stop advertisements for nearly everything held, eaten or otherwise remotely handled by their casts.
Director Morgan Spurlock is no stranger to throwing himself head first into his documentary projects as a more than eager human guinea pig and in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, he dives into the rather shifty world of product placement and manages to pop up smelling like roses and shilling to the masses simultaneously. The film is a hilarious peel back the curtains "Doc-buster" on how advertising agencies along with Hollywood film and TV studios have turned nearly every form of entertainment or information source into stationary or moving ads for thousands of popular products. If you've ever wondered about why you're seeing all those familiar foods, cars, clothes and tech toys called out by name or lovingly displayed in your favorite shows, films and news, you'll want to drop that remote and go buy a ticket to this instant classic.
The film works brilliantly from start to finish thanks to Spurlock's eagerness to throw anything into the mix, stir it around and see what happens. Once he gets the idea for the film rolling, the advertising agencies he meets with all turn him down until he finds one (kbs+p) that points him in the right direction. His main goals are to get major companies to fund the documentary entirely by agreeing to show off their products in different forms as a pitchman while keeping total control of the final cut of the film. Resistance to the idea is, naturally, swift and pretty damn funny stuff. When Spurlock starts making cold calls, it's a series of flat out negative responses that's one of many hilarious highlights. Obviously, a LOT of big corporations are afraid of how the Super Size Me director would portray their products in the film, given the impact that doc had on McDonald's reputation among more than a few viewers worldwide.
However, it turns out anyone who didn't sign up was the real loser in the end, as the film manages to raise awareness of a few brands that up until now, didn't have a huge national marketing strategy. Spurlock's sponsors end up being an interesting mix of familiar worldwide brands (Mini Cooper, Hyatt Hotels), an airline smart enough to know a good pitchman when he walks into their offices (Jet Blue) and a number of assorted companies of varying sizes that include some surprises. I'd read the press pack before screening the film, so I knew Mane 'n Tail would be in the documentary, but the way they get in is another high point. There's a scene where Spurlock randomly picks up a bottle of the horse and human shampoo while scouting potential products, cracks up laughing while reading the instructions and decides on the spot to add them to his call list.
The best pitches in the film are the meetings with the people at POM, Ban Deodorant and Altoona, Pennsylvania's Sheetz, a popular convenience store/gas station chain in the state. The Sheetz representatives (who happen to be part of the family the stores are named after) almost immediately see the potential in having national recognition as well as a cinematic vehicle to promote their chain. Yet even after Spurlock sells them on the idea of decking out their stores with tie-in merchandise, CEO Stan Sheetz questions his motives after he's gone. In case you haven't heard the news, Altoona has been renamed for the film , a publicity stunt that's actually benefiting the area in an otherwise lousy economy. The Ban meeting is yet another key moment in the film, as Spurlock makes the reps there actually think of their underarm product as a lot more unique that it is. You can practically hear the bells going off in the heads in the room after he asks a question about the product no one seems to have thought of.
On the other hand, the POM meeting shows that Owner/CEO Lynda Resnick is even more savvy and quicker than Spurlock. As part of the deal, he's to create a commercial for POM that's to run during the movie and when he walks into a meeting room later in the film with his own ideas, it's a key moment. All three of his storyboard pitches are shot down unceremoniously and Resnick doesn't bat an eyelash at Spurlock's most outrageous idea for a viral ad that compares POM to Viagra. Instead, she proposes a simpler ad that's seemingly generic, but fits the product perfectly and isn't offensive in the slightest. Spurlock is eventually caught between all sorts of legal ties thanks to contracts that tell him where and what to do and say about the products he's representing.
This of course, not only doesn't stop him from making the film he wanted to make, it allows us to see a few anti-advertising advocates get screen time as a counterpoint. In no short order, Spurlock gets Susan Linn, Robert Weissman, and Ralph Nader to either subtly promote or be in a space where products are heavily promoted with amusing results. It's a nice bit of fun the director is having here, but Nader ending up grinning giddily after receiving a free pair of Merrells from the director is pure gold. Like it or not, almost no one is immune to a great gift, even if it's wrapped up as a shamelessly goofy product placement. For a paltry 1.5 million dollars (all coming from the film's 20+ sponsors), the slickly produced documentary is a surefire conversation magnet for anyone interested in how they system pulls all of our strings.
A trip to Sao Paolo makes for an amazing (and surprising) few ad-free minutes, as the Brazilian city has decided to ban and eliminate all outdoor advertising, period. Shots of plain painted apartment and commercial building walls, public transportation and even storefronts might be startling to some Americans or other citizens of the world inundated by endless neon and jumbo screens. However, I found it to be a wonderful counterpoint to the now mundane inanity of Times Square's ever-growing landscape of flashy signage. Back in the U.S. of A., the film also gets mileage from Spurlock chatting with Quentin Tanratino, Peter Berg, Brett Ratner, J.J. Abrams, Big Boi and other entertainment types on the impact of ads in their works. By the time Noam Chomsky shows up in the film and later, Damian and Tim from OK Go (who sign up to do the film's end credit song) your head will be so filled with information it might pop. However, the rapid-fire pacing and solid editing work will keep you glued to your seat.
Where the film will really score big emotionally for some is when a high school in Florida gets the director's attentions as he eventually gets the film advertised on space around the school and in its buses. Meetings with the different school representatives show them to be receptive to the idea, as it will generate much needed funds into the school's dwindling resources. It's the teens that are briefly shown that end up the stars as they're far from the mindless sponge-skull drones advertisers carpet-bomb with product pitches on the school's TV channel. You see from their reactions to being constantly targeted by ads that these kids are part of a more aware generation and might perhaps be part of the wave of people who start demanding to have the amount of advertising lessened at some point.
Spurlock makes the occasional anti-ad point a few times during the film, but this doesn't stop him from making some of the best commercials you'll see this year. His great Jet Blue ad manages to be endearing (and very low-tech), while Hyatt gets an amusing send up of elitist luxury hotel ads with the director clad in a plush robe with a towel wrapped around his head enjoying assorted amenities. The Mane 'n Tail spot had the entire screening audience cracking up, but I'll let you buy a ticket to find out why. Yes, POM also gets their ad time (and a load of screen time as Spurlock is swigging that tasty beverage throughout the film) in a number of key placements that show exactly why Lynda Resnick has made the drink such a massive success in such a short time. Still, as the director has final cut, I can't wait to see the DVD and Blu-Ray version (Hey. Morgan... you ARE going to do all three of those ad ideas that got shot down, right?).
By the time the film ends (stick around through the credits for some more funny stuff), it raises more questions than it actually answers, but you'll be a hell of a lot more informed about the way the ad business works. And that seems to be exactly what Spurlock wants you to walk out of that theater with. Especially as you head out of that multiplex and down to that famous-name chain restaurant to chat with your friends about the film he's made (passing well-lit ads all the way there and back home once you're done). He might have temporarily sold himself out, but by accepting this fate and the ridiculous responsibility that goes with it (as long as the legal contracts hold him to all sorts of ironclad agreements), Morgan Spurlock is more or less living that part of the American Dream advertisers wish we'd all fall in line behind on a more permanent basis.
(as in See it ASAP... and bring a few friends!)