Product placement was invented long before Holly Golightly went window shopping at Tiffany’s, wearing the soon-to-become-iconic sleeveless Givanchy dress and Ray Bans. In fact, the first film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, Wings (William A. Wellman, 1927), had paid product placement for Hershey’s Chocolate. Today it is a multi-billion dollar industry and it has caught the attention of Morgan Spurlock, the director of the controversial Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me, in which he conducted a self-experiment by eating nothing but McDonald’s food for a month. His latest feature with a mouthful of a title – Pom’s Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold – is also built around an experiment (or a gimmick, whichever one you prefer).
This time around Spurlock wants to find out whether it is possible to make a “film about product placement funded strictly by product placement”: he will secure the film’s budget by finding sponsors that will finance the film, which in return will promote their brands. The search for the said sponsors is the central part of the film. Turns out larger brands are not particularly interested in advertising through an indie documentary, much less through a Morgan Spurlock feature (who would’ve thought). So, one by one, he approaches smaller brands that usually can’t afford to have their products placed in big Hollywood blockbusters like Iron Man, which had more than 14 brand partners.
With a wide grin (read: barely conceived smirk) on his face Spurlock pitches the idea for his movie to the brands’ representatives. They ask him questions about the film and how their brand will be portrayed in it. The whole process is, of course, being filmed and is part of the movie. Things cannot be any more meta than this. The whole process is very entertaining, as is the rest of the film, and Spurlock himself seems to be having a very good time, too: he gets a special laugh out of a particular hair care brand, “Mane N’ Tale” — hair products that are designed to be used by both humans and horses; he also appears to be permanently surprised at the fact that any brand that takes itself seriously would be interested in cooperating with him.
His surprised reaction, however, feels somewhat forced, as one can’t help but notice that one is witnessing less of an experiment but more of a demonstration. Not only does Mr. Spurlock have a precise understanding of the well-oiled machine that is embedded marketing, but he also seems to have a pretty good idea of how things are going to play out before they do. As he scratches his head over the contracts he’s signed with the brands sponsoring his movie – turns out there are a lot of things he now has to do (e.g. stay exclusively at Hyatt Hotels) and things he is no longer allowed to do (e.g. “disparage the whole country of Germany”) – one can’t help but wonder why Spurlock is so keen on playing dumb not only in front of the brands’ representatives but also in front of his audience.
And while Spurlock is too self-aware to be considered ‘dishonest’, this approach keeps him from tackling anything apart from the obvious. Throughout the film he talks to advertising and marketing professionals, media experts and an occasional filmmaker; even Noam Chomsky shares a few thoughts on the topic of “selling out” when Mr. Spurlock, concerned about his artistic integrity, asks him for advice. But if you’re playing dumb you can’t ask insightful questions and ultimately Spurlock doesn’t end up really showing us anything we didn’t already know or at least suspect about product placement.
For example, consider the conclusion he draws from what is perhaps the most interesting and informative part of the documentary: a short sequence where Spurlock talks to Martin Lindstrom, an expert in the field of neuromarketing. Neuromarketing is a new technique that uses brain-scans to analyze the consumers’ cognitive and affective responses to stimuli in an advertisement. Mr. Lindstrom reveals that responses to images that evoke fear, craving or sex are particularly strong and may cause the release of a neurotransmitter such as dopamine, which is commonly associated with the reward system of the brain and provides feelings of enjoyment. “Does that mean that you are manipulating consumers?” enquires Spurlock. “Advertisement is a concept is manipulation”. No kidding.
After watching The Greatest Movie Ever Sold I have more questions than answers. I mean, why does product placement work in the first place? Why would a simple mention of a brand make us want to go out and buy the product? Does it really matter to us whether a film character prefers Pepsi over Coke or the other way around? Do most of us even notice product placement unless it’s as blatantly obvious as in, say, I, Robot? And does it matter whether we notice it or not?
Also, is it possible that product placement is needed not only for financial reasons? Wouldn’t a cinematic universe devoid of branded goods somehow seem unnatural considering we are surrounded by them in our everyday life? Coincidentally, a possible answer to this question is provided when Mr. Spurlock takes a trip to Sao Paolo on his search for an ad-free environment: there all the outside advertisements have been banished, making the buildings look strangely naked and alien. Want it or not, advertisement is here to stay and so is product placement. Mr. Spurlock might act like he isn’t aware of the fact that his cocky but affable ‘your average Joe’ persona is nothing else but a carefully constructed brand, but everybody knows it’s no coincidence that the film posters for his films always feature him.
Indeed, had Mr. Spurlock been less preoccupied with keeping up his brand, the film might have turned out at least somewhat enlightening. Instead, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is a lot like those Big Macs Mr. Spurlock has stuffed himself with in Super Size Me: the taste is alright but it’ll do nothing for your health.