Morgan Spurlock exposes product placement

Morgan Spurlock
Image caption Spurlock bought the name of a town, Altoona, Pennsylvania

Morgan Spurlock made his name as a documentary film-maker with Super Size Me, which looked at the effects of eating fast food. Seven years on, he's back with a film exposing the practice of aggressive product placement in US TV shows and movies.

Super Size Me exposed the physically and psychologically addictive nature of McDonald's and its marketing campaign to persuade people to overeat.

It would be fair, then, to think that Spurlock is no friend to the corporate world.

However, in his new feature-length documentary, brazenly named The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, he has taken quite a different tack.

This time Spurlock has made himself into the darling of corporate marketing and created a film entirely funded by product placement.

He came up with the idea about three years ago when he sat down to watch his favourite TV series and found the heroine blatantly plugging Nissan's latest car model.

"We're in a world where all the TV shows that I love are becoming commercials," he told BBC World Service's Strand programme.

In response he decided to embark on a project that was to be "the mother of all product placement movies".

'Quality sheen'

He started with 600 potential products, a long and broad-ranging list of companies he hoped would jump at the opportunity to feature in the movie.

He approached airlines, carmakers, hotels, drink companies, clothing labels and even a manufacturer of horse shampoo.

"It's a dual purpose product so both you and your horse can have that quality sheen," says Spurlock with his unique blend of sarcasm and sincerity.

Perhaps only a character as fearless as Spurlock could hope to pull off a scheme like this but it was not without difficulty, he says.

"We had a success rate of about 2.5%," he says.

He soon realised his reputation for smiting successful multinationals may have preceded him.

Image caption Spurlock promoted his film relentlessly

The response from many companies was: "Listen, you're not 'supersizing' our business, buddy."

After the proposal to be a leading sponsor was rejected by Coke, Sprite and Pepsi, Spurlock found a keen collaborator in POM Wonderful, the less well-known manufacturer of pomegranate juice.

POM Wonderful committed $1m (£610,000) to the film, $600,000 (£369,000) was paid up front and the rest is dependent on the success of the movie at box offices worldwide.

"They have gotten a bang for their buck," he says.

The juice company bought the "above the title" naming rights which means the movie's official title is POM Wonderful presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

'Cinemagic'

A host of other conditions were put in place by the film's various advertising partners.

Mini Cooper, for example, insisted Spurlock drive one of their cars and added that while driving or filming in a Mini he should avoid disparaging the country of Germany.

"Once outside of the car and beyond the vehicle, however, I could disparage Germany all I like," he says.

And of course the team were obliged to drink POM Wonderful all the time. Even Noam Chomsky, the famed social commentator and critic of commercialism had to have a bottle with him in shot.

In countries where POM Wonderful isn't even sold, it managed to appear.

"I don't know how that's possible," says Spurlock. "That's what they call cinemagic."

Asked if he tired of the drink, Spurlock says: "How could I get sick of it, it's the greatest antioxidant you'll ever drink, it's delicious!"

Spurlock's satirical message is not lost. His film is a comment on the way in which advertising has encroached on our daily lives, following us everywhere from elevators to taxis, toilets and even schools.

"Schools are a big one in the US, they're selling advertising within school districts to make up budget gaps. It's a brand new thing and I think it's an issue," he says.

The key thing for Spurlock is transparency: that we are aware when we are being subject to advertising without it creeping surreptitiously into our lives.

Maintaining that awareness was a crucial part of the film-making process as was the battle to retain creative control.

As piles of contracts and clauses poured in from the film's various sponsors, Spurlock and his team relentlessly peeled back their demands and were careful to ensure full control over the final edit.

But if the film is such a critical commentary of corporate marketing how is it so many brands did finally agree to be part of it?

"I think they looked at it as a chance to be in on the joke," he says.

"The companies who ended up sponsoring this film come off very smart and very savvy."

The Greatest Movie Ever Sold does not yet have a UK release date.

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