Placing Products & Making Choices

Tony Mills reviews Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary and considers the ways in which product placement and the companies behind them have begun to make our choices for us. Check it out after the jump.

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is the most recent documentary by Morgan Spurlock, who became a household name after his 2004 hit Super Size Me in which he spent an entire month eating nothing but McDonald’s meals and recording his alarmingly rapid decay into poor health. In this outing, he again addresses corporate America but from a different angle, as the entire documentary chronicles his efforts to get corporate sponsors to pay for the film. The transparency and self-referentiality of it all is at times surreal, and to the extent that the documentary has a “plot,” this is it.

What The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is really about is product placement in film, television, and other electronic media. As most of us are aware of this already, we might wonder why Spurlock has to tell us something so obvious. The rabbit hole, I’m afraid, runs far deeper than we know, and one of Spurlock’s aims is to take us on that journey. In one segment, for instance, he travels to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where the municipal leaders have actually banned all outdoor advertising. The citizens he interviews are grateful for this, and the shopkeepers admit that they must now rely on other methods for their businesses to prosper, such as (gasp) word of mouth and customer relations. This is one scenes that should engender some hope for people like me who get tired of being brainwashed by the Market and actually enjoy those old dusty things like books, silence, and face-to-face conversation.

The chief mystery of the film is what exactly Spurlock thinks of all of this. Each sponsors he acquires puts certain restrictions on what he can, cannot, and must say in the movie. This restricts his behavior too: he only drinks POM Wonderful pomegranate juice, only wears Merrell shoes, only stays at Hyatt hotels, only drives Mini Coopers, etc. This develops into something of a moral dilemma in the second half of the film. “Am I selling out,” Spurlock asks himself and, presumably, us. The answers come from a variety of voices throughout several interviews, of which we only see clips, and the opinions, from Donald Trump to Noam Chomsky with Quentin Tarantino, Ralph Nader, Brett Ratner, and others thrown into the mix, are quite diverse. Spurlock’s refusal to answer himself could either be from legal restrictions or his own ambiguity about the matter.

The completely unashamed Morgan Spurlock.

Aside from the importance of the topic itself, the film’s main strength is Spurlock himself. As in Super Size Me, he is back with his iconic handlebar moustache, natural charisma, and unassuming attitude. One gets the feeling that he is genuinely concerned about these issues and is so overwhelmed by what he finds that he doesn’t know quite what to make of it all. He has thick enough skin to not get too discouraged when several corporations and marketing firms refuse to sponsor him in the beginning, but he is not bitter either. Through interviews with his would-be sponsors, he proves himself to be the kind of filmmaker who lets the executives speak for themselves without putting a particular spin on what they’re saying. Frankly, while I am not a fan of free-market capitalism, I think that many of his interviewees are down to earth and approachable, unlike some of the ones who rejected him earlier. Then again, maybe Michael Moore and others are right in arguing that the capitalist system itself is monstrous even if many of its servants are not.

This all leads, finally, to a point about brainwashing to which I referred above. Perhaps the most disturbing segment of the movie concerns the hip new advertising technique of neuromarketing, where people are given MRI scans of their brains while being shown various commercials in an attempt to determine which ads create the most neural activity and the release of dopamine, a chemical linked to motivation and pleasure. While writing this review I discovered a study on neuromarketing by the BBC, which reveals that an Apple fan shown images of his favorite brand creates activity in the same regions of the brain associated with religious belief. Of course this no doubt happens with countless other companies as well. This should make readers and viewers of every political persuasion extremely concerned. The alleged freedom we think we have is increasingly becoming little more than a façade for a stark reality. The advertisers and the companies increasingly make our choices for us. Oh, and lest I forget, the full title of Spurlock’s film is actually POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is currently available on On Demand and will be released on DVD later this year.