The affable documentarian famous for an all-McDonald’s diet turns his attention to the world of product placement in movies.
Morgan Spurlock’s genial documentaries have been a festival mainstay since the release of his hit McDonald’s video diary, Super Size Me. His latest, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold looks at the world of product placement, and in a fun, easily marketable conceit, the film itself is made via product placement.
Spurlock says that film was “all I ever wanted to do my whole life. As a kid I would go to a couple of movies a week, my parents and I would sit around watching movies. Now as an adult, I think movies transcend cultures, much more than television; it translates to a much more global audience than other media.”
The surprise success of Super Size Me almost defined Spurlock’s career path. “It’s that old adage, ‘if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.’ I never planned to be a documentary filmmaker. After Super Size Me, I personally, as a human being, really loved what that film said and accomplished. I saw kids watching it in schools, teachers using it as an educational tool; there’s an importance to documentary we can;t deny. To be able to create something that stirs debates, stirs conversation, that can potentially effect change [and] get people thinking is a great medium to be working in.”
Spurlock admits, however, that the film has typecast him. “You’re that guy forever,” he concedes. “I’m that guy for the rest of my life, I will always be the guy who made Super Size Me. I ended up getting stopped in the airport by the guy who was in security who looks at me and goes, ‘you’re the McDonald’s guy!’ Forever, I’ll be that guy. But Michael Moore will forever be the Roger and Me guy. You can’t be afraid of that, or upset about that.”
Spurlock is frequently the focal point on screen, a risky strategy if the audience doesn’t decide to go with you, or in the case of Michael Moore, leaves you open to personal attack. “I don’t ever think about that,” he says. “Ultimately, I just try and think about the ideas and say ‘here’s what it is.’ When we’re in the editorial process, we try to cut around me, but with a movie like this, it’s very difficult, as it’s me driving the journey for the whole thing.” He also agrees that The Greatest Movie Ever Sold can be read in conjunction with Supersize Me. “It’s a fantastic step-brother or step-cousin. There is a great relationship between those two movies. Within the world of advertising and marketing, they both really do represent the phenomena that has enveloped not just American, but Western culture in a lot of ways.”
Corporate sponsorship of the arts isn’t a new concept by any stretch of the imgination, and I suggest to Spurlock that product placement is hardly an unknown quantity. “I think people realise that it exists, I think we’ve become so desensitised to it that we don’t notice a lot of it anymore. I feel like we’ve completely shielded ourselves from the fact that subconsciously and subliminally we’re being marketed to, which is now what’s happening beyond film and television, but just going down the street. I think what the film does is pull that curtain back, taking us up to the point where we don’t look at things in the same way. You won’t look at a film or television in the same way after seeing The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”
Spurlock’s documentaries can be sold as high concept (e.g. can be summed up in as few words as possible). And he confesses that this influences how he conceives of projects. “If you can explain your movie in a sentence, you’ve got a pretty great concept for a movie. No matter what the movie is, you should be able to sum up the movie pretty quickly.” He adds that “you’ve got to be ready to be married to that movie for a long time. It’s a bit like having a baby. You birth the baby, but you can’’ just send it off to boarding school. You’ve got to be attentive to that kid, you’ve got to spend time with it, you’ve got to edit it, you’ve got to promote it, you’ve got to take it out on the road. You’ve always got to answer questions on it. It’s one of those things, it’ll be tied to you forever, it has got to be something you want to be attached to you for the rest of your life.”
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold took over a year to shoot, and Spurlock thought the process would have been much easier. “When we first started chasing them [brand endorsements] in April 2009, I thought ‘in 60s days, we’ll have all the money on board, we’ll be ready to start shooting.’ Ultimately, it became nine months. It’s incredibly intimidating when you go in there. You’re basically going in there begging, trying to get people buy into this idea that you think is great. Thank goodness I had years of rejection in high school, years of rejection as a young filmmaker—I was a little more prepared for it, but not so prepared when people in there started railing into you.”
Spurlock says he was spurred on by other employees of the organisations that rejected him. “One thing that kept us going was every time a brand would say ‘no’, it was always the CMOs who we were pushed up to who would say ‘no’, and it was the people underneath them, who gave us the names and people to call, people who worked for the bosses, who would call back and say ‘I’m really sorry, I really thought he’d go for it. You know what, I’ll do anything I can to help you with this movie that won’t get me fired.’ The thing that really kept us going was that everybody on the bottom really wanted us to get the movie made.”
It’s hard to say if product placement actually works for companies in raising brand awareness. Spurlock says, “I think it works. Otherwise they wouldn’t keep doing it. Especially now, when you look at the world of product placement. Brands are pulling themselves away from television. Trying to be attractive to people, to have that passive endorsement of a star in a movie or a television show, that’s valuable to them. Does it make people want to go out and buy something? I don’t know. There are plenty of people who see Brad Pitt wear sunglasses or a shirt who go out to buy those sunglasses or shirt. I think there is a level that does have impact. After Greatest Movie, will people go out any buy pomegranates? I don’t know. Throughout this whole release period, people have always said, I get tweeted ‘oh my gosh, I have to go out and get a POM right now. I have to go get Amy’s Pizza.’”
He suggests that it’s not all doom and gloom though. “Ultimately, so long as the artist gets to be the artist, and don’t have ad men telling them what to do, or paint, or say, then that’s fine. But what you start to see is that in recent years, there’s this real influx of marketing into the creative process. We need to let creative people be creative, and take a step back. If you want to be a patron of the arts of a brand or corporation—I would see the people who sponsored this film more as patrons, than people who forced me to do certain things, and ultimately I got to do what I wanted—it was like the early days of TV or radio, where this brand brings you whatever this show is. They did nothing but slap their name on it because they wanted to be associated with something fun, cool or whatever. As long as that level of integrity remains, then there will be a partnership in which both parties can benefit. The more they get involved and start to effect the content with messaging, then that’s the bigger problem.”