Morgan Spurlock, the documentary filmmaker best known for eating nothing but McDonald's for a month in Super Size Me, financed his new film through corporate sponsorship and product placement. This is hardly unusual: It's just part of how most Hollywood films get made nowadays. What makes Spurlock's film unusual is that it's a documentary about product placement itself. In POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (opening Fri., May 6, in Atlanta), Spurlock uses the process as a platform for examining the pervasiveness of advertising and its slow but steady creep into places it's never been before: our entertainment, our schools, into almost every aspect of our daily lives. We caught up with the director to chat about The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, getting his brain scanned, and how he thinks he dodged becoming the next great sellout.
What inspired you to make a movie about advertising in movies?
The film came from a bunch of different conversations I had, the biggest one being that you can't seem to go anywhere nowadays without someone trying to sell you something. The pervasiveness of advertising has infiltrated every step of life. Everywhere you go from the minute you leave your house to the minute you come home at night you're just inundated with this messaging. It's co-opted entertainment to the point where you watch TV shows and it feels like commercials now. Advertisers are now writing dialog into the shows and into the movies. A story just came out yesterday that a third of the new 007 movie's budget will come from sponsors, which is kind of bananas. I thought using product placement would be an interesting jumping off point to talk about advertising and marketing.
What do you think the harm is? Say Spider-man picks up a Pepsi in his latest flick. What's the big deal?
It's not just about the film. It's the film and the promotional tie-ins and how everything starts to be co-opted. In New York City, they just put up the naming rights for parks and playgrounds: Where do we draw the line with corporate sponsorship and corporate branding in our daily lives? Is there a space that's meant to be sacred? Or am I going to end up taking my kid to Bank of America Prospect Park? Will I be taking him to the Mountain Dew Playground? Will I be pushing him down the Twizzler-Twinkie Slide? It's one piece of a much larger puzzle. One tiny thing isn't the problem. It's the large effect of everything.
In the movie, you seem to experience a lot of anxiety about the possibility that you're selling out. Did you ever reach a conclusion about that? Did you sell out?
The fact that we were able to retain final cut of the movie negates any question of that. Had we let these brands come in and let them dictate about how they would be in the film and what the final message of the movie would be, much as you see is happening in a lot of film and television these days, I think it would have been a very different scenario. I think we were able to stay on the side of "buying in," which meant we were buying in to this idea of "This is how you're supposed to make movies," but maintaining some sort of artistic integrity.
Did you like the products that were in the film?
Are you kidding? These are the greatest sponsors you could ever have for a movie.
You had your brain scanned by advertisers as a part of the documentary.
Neural marketing is a pretty frightening development that's happening in the world of advertising and marketing. You see me do it by myself in the film, but they do hundreds of people over the course of days and weeks where they're showing them commercials while getting a scan of their brains, and then they re-edit those commercials to focus and target those response centers of the brain that respond to core base instinct: desire, fear, craving, sex. What you create is a commercial that the overwhelming majority of people respond to in the same way.
Do you ever find yourself craving McDonald's? Do you ever go there anymore?
I haven't been there since March 2, 2003, but to this day if I smell a Big Mac, my mouth will start watering like Pavlov's dogs. Toward the end of that Super Size Me experiment, the food started to taste like chemicals. It doesn't even taste like food to me. It tastes like plastic, like an amalgam of things that are unnatural.
What's next for you?
The sequel: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold II: The Quest for More Money.