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TBTS Reviews: Pom Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

June 8, 2011

True story: I was chatting with a friend the other day and he asked me what I was doing that evening. I said I was going to see the new Morgan Spurlock movie with my wife. Usually, I have to explain to people that Morgan Spurlock is “you know, the Super Size Me guy.” But not only did my friend already know who Spurlock is, but was also able to recite the full, official title of his new movie, Pom Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Given that Spurlock’s new documentary is about branding and product placement in movies, I was amused that Pom Wonderful‘s above-the-title branding had, in fact, been effective.

Pom Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever SoldI will make no bones. I am a huge fan of Morgan Spurlock. (I celebrate the man’s entire catalog!) I think he’s an entertainingly charismatic filmmaker whose everyman shtick makes him a fitting surrogate for his audience. His films are clever, deliberately paced, and easy to follow. They can be alternately hilarious and astonishing. 2004’s Super Size Me and 2008’s Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? dealt with issues people care about in a way that was accessible and honest.

The idea behind The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is pretty simple. Spurlock wants to make a documentary about branding and product placement in movies . . . funded entirely by branding and product placement. What better way to document the process than by participating in it yourself? Despite the simple premise, the result is a fascinating and layered story about something that we see everyday yet are almost never conscious of (or at least not supposed to be.)

Spurlock starts with a basic explanation of product placement, including some topical and amusing examples. He announces his intention and muses about where to start. How does one approach companies for money in exchange for product placement? It turns out there are marketing companies that will help with this. Spurlock documents his meetings with these companies and, as the film progresses, eventually reaches agreements with enough sponsors to fund the entire film. His air transportation is provided by jetBlue. His land transportation by Mini Cooper. Gas is provided by Sheetz (a regional gas/convenience chain in the North-eastern U.S.) Others like Hyatt, Old Navy, Mane n’ Tail, Ban, and even the Aruba Tourism Authority pay their share. And, of course, the big contributor is Pom Wonderful and their fruit juices. Spurlock seeks out (and finds!) open-minded companies whose corporate culture and brands are ostensibly “fun” enough to even consider sponsoring such a venture. I have to admit, I found it refreshing in an increasingly risk-averse marketing culture.

Spurlock also interviews filmmakers, attorneys, and cultural luminaries for insight into the concepts behind product placement and branding. Directors like J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Super 8), Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon) and Peter Berg (Friday Night Lights, Hancock) talk about how product placement affects their art. (Berg, surprisingly, is the most candid of the three.) Social and political commentators like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader talk about the effects that branding and entertainment marketing can have on society. Spurlock even talks to members of geek-tastic rock band OK Go about branding in the music business. (He also gets them to write and record a Greatest Movie Ever Sold theme song!) Meanwhile, Spurlock is constantly and gleefully plugging the products of his sponsors. He drinks nothing but Pom Wonderful, wears only Merrell shoes, eats only Amy’s Frozen Pizza, drives only Minis.

The movie has some troubling moments as well. Spurlock spends some time going over the various contracts with his attorney. It is explained that basically the sponsors can and will demand final review of the completed film. They specify (in mind-numbing detail) how their products are to be depicted on-screen. And when Spurlock approaches his major sponsors with ideas, his storyboards are often rejected due to some nebulous, arbitrary notion of how the brand is represented.

As in his other films, Spurlock does some traveling to provide additional context for his thesis. He visits Florida’s Broward County school district to hear about how they’ve had to start selling banner ads in their sports fields and even in their school buses in order to pay for school services. He talks about Channel One News (I had never heard of it, but apparently it’s quite prevalent), an ad-laden “news show” broadcast every morning via satellite to captive high-school and middle-school audiences all over the US. He also visits Sao Paolo, Brazil, whose city planners passed a law in 2006 banning all outdoor advertising. Spurlock’s footage of a city devoid of logos is impressive and only slightly less unsettling than when he visits a company that does MRI brain scans to determine (and maximize) the effectiveness of advertising.

Much of this is done with raised-eyebrow incredulity on the part of Morgan Spurlock. He really can’t seem to believe that any company would say “yes” to his proposal. He is clearly impressed by the bare buildings and storefronts of Sao Paolo and the cluttered fences of Broward County’s baseball field. The audience shares his amusement that Mane n’ Tail actually has “for humans” and “for horses” instructions on each bottle of their shampoo.

That is not to say there aren’t a few missteps. There is some intercut footage of man-on-the-street interviews asking shallow questions like “is there truth in advertising?” Frankly, these add nothing to the narrative and are often forehead-slappingly inane. For better or worse, Spurlock never really goes for the jugular in this one. He almost seems to be avoiding any overt criticism of the ideas on display. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that he is actually being paid via product placement. Many reviews have actually lambasted him for this; as though he is expected to take a stand and chastise these corporate marketing douchebags for being such corporate marketing douchebags. Personally, I thought those reviewers miss the point. It was just the right approach. Spurlock seems to be saying, “look, this is how it is. Being aware of product placement and how it works is enough to combat it if you want to.”

I managed to catch Pom Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold at my local art-house theater, where it was showing for exactly one week. If you are still able to catch it on the big screen you should. If not, definitely rent/Netflix it. Even if Morgan Spurlock himself doesn’t impress, your sure to get enough interesting stuff to inspire any number of dinner-table or watercooler conversations.

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