POM Wonderful's Product Placement Doublecross of Morgan Spurlock

Posted by Abe Sauer on January 24, 2011 03:40 PM

The Sundance Film Festival kicked off last week with news that Morgan Spurlock's new documentary — The Greatest Movie Ever Sold — had sold.

In fact, it sold itself many times over: first and foremost to POM Wonderful for title sponsorship; to Sony, which will distribute it; and to the other brands who agreed to underwrite Spurlock's film in return for being featured placing their products as part of the film.

It all means that Sony will distribute the documentary in April under its new title — POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. The bigger question, as Spurlock seeks to sell out much in the way he intended to blimp out with his McDonald's-skewering Super Size Me documentary in 2004: who got bought and who got sold? And can such a cynical exercise really show how branding and product placement work?

The film's concept is clear. It "examines the world of product placement, marketing and advertising by making a film entirely financed by product placement and advertising." We now know which brands bought in to Spurlock's sell-out. We also know that this film probably won't prove anything, or enlighten anyone. Because outrage filmmaking hinging on stunts never does. In fact, Spurlock's idea isn't even new.

A 2009 Time magazine piece pulled the exact same stunt. And can you guess the brand that stepped in to sponsor that piece? Let's just say it was POM kind of wonderful.

The 15 brands Spurlock convinced to put up the $1.5 million used to finance the film in return for placement include Carerra Sunglasses, Mane 'n Tail (horse and human shampoo), JetBlue, Merrell Shoes, Hyatt, Amy’s Organic Pizza, Mini Cooper, Seventh Generation, Ban deodorant, and, of course, the desperate POM Wonderful, which was reprimanded for unsubstantiated advertising claims by the FTC last year.

It should be noted that Spurlock's film isn't the only movie POM Wonderful has bought its way into. Recent hits Green Hornet and How Do You Know both feature the unmistakable bottle:

In a tricky bit of filmmaking, Spurlock includes brands such as Volkswagen, Nintendo and Nike in the film by bringing attention to the rejection letters he received from the brands. And, the film includes a brand name that other films pay not to be included, Donald Trump. Spurlock also says that hundreds of brands ("Ben Sherman, Reebok, Nike, Old Navy, Tommy Hilfiger, every clothing company you can imagine") declined to participate.

Of course, all of the brand marketers that agree to be placed in the film are in on the joke, which seems to defeat the purpose. In fact, Spurlock might be getting gamed by the brands (like POM) that fully understand that being the butt of a joke, and displaying a sense of humor, can help revive a battered brand image.

A half decade ago, in our 2005 Brandcameo Product Placement Awards, we noted that The Island contained the most meta-product placement of all time, having taken "a real Calvin Klein commercial starring Scarlett Johansson and made the commercial a major part of a fictional film in which Scarlett Johansson plays an actress who isn’t Scarlett Johansson but stars in the same CK commercial."

But Spurlock may take that title by gaming advertisers into paying to be placed in a film that is about the evils of paid placements — while those same advertisers were gaming Spurlock for the positive vibes the very involvement of the brands in the film might bring. Or did we just blow your mind?

That Spurlock's latest gambit is already a failure is evidenced in the fact that some of the brands, instead of being shamed by the film's message of the outrageousness of invasive advertising, are already bragging.

A press release from convenience store Sheetz celebrated the role it has in the film as "its international film debut" and quoted the brand's EVP of sales and marketing as saying, "Sheetz has a well-known reputation for being real and unexpected.  Morgan takes that same approach with his films. The chance to team up with him for this type of movie is a great way for our fans to enjoy Sheetz in an entirely different arena than they are used to."

But none massage the situation better than POM Wonderful. A perfect example of how POM outmanoeuvered Spurlock and is already seeing its investment pay off is a video report from Sundance on the popular blog Slashfilm. As props for the report, the bloggers all jokingly hold and display bottles of POM juice.

As alluded to above, POM pulled off the same feat in a 2009 Time magazine column by humorist Joel Stein, in a piece titled "This Journalist Is Brought to You by..." Stein jokes about saving journalism by selling column-embedded product placements. He sets out to snag real-life sponsors, and, like Spurlock, is rejected by numerous brands. But then Stein reaches Matt Tupper, president of POM Wonderful, and hits paydirt.

"I was prepared to have Tupper reject me," he writes. "Instead, he offered $25,000. I was hoping for about a quarter of that, and I was expecting it less in cash and more in posters and caps." POM even got Time to embed a video featuring the brand's column sponsorship.

What is the greatest product placement in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold? Well, Morgan Spurlock himself, of course. What the "master provocateur" did with his hit Super Size Me is still the paradigm for stunt-based outrage documentaries whose results are neutered by the stunt and bombast.

You may recall that McDonald's came under fire following Spurlock's vow to eat himself fat and/or sick in 30 days by consuming unreasonable amounts and then blaming McDonald's. Spurlock rocketed to fame and claimed victory as McDonald's dropped its super-size option. Spurlock moved on to, of all things, searching for Osama bin Laden.

Meanwhile, a couple of years later, McDonald's brought back its supersizes, in packaging if not in name. In the years since Super Size Me, McDonald's has been more profitable than ever, hitting a record high revenue of $24 billion in 2010.

Proving that he clearly is not approaching the subject with any kind of serious goal is an answer he gave to the The Hollywood Reporter, when it pressed him about what he is offering these brand partners in return for signing on.

Spurlock answered, "Well, we are trying to create a docbuster! That's the thing. I'm like, Why can't we make a blockbuster documentary? If what makes Iron Man so successful are all these brand partners, why couldn't we do that with a documentary?"

He may want to change that term to "docbluster." Spurlock clearly doesn't understand that it's not the brand partners that make Iron Man popular; it's Iron Man's popularity that makes brands want to partner with it. Nobody understands this better than the filmmaker with an unknown movie project trying to develop products placements and brand partners (and generate buzz) for his film.

Indeed, in the film itself, Spurlock confesses to his project's impotence, saying, "Best I can do is just show you that it's out there. Because marketing works."

Those looking for a film that accomplishes a similar goal to Greatest Movie Ever Sold, but in maybe a more compelling manner, should check out the Oscar-winning short film Logoroama (below).

As for judging Spurlock's new doc, we'll check it out in April, and hope it's not as neutered as the filmmaker himself makes it out to be.


Ethan United States says:

Having caught the world premiere of this film at Sundance, I have to say I'm stunned that Mr. Sauer would expend this many words attacking a film he hasn't seen.  When he does see it, it will be interesting to see how much of this "review" he'll have the grace to walk back.  Suffice to say that Spurlock is way ahead of him.  My confident prediction: based on the initial audience reactions and the cross-marketing promotions planned for the national release, this doc will do very well for Spurlock and his sponsors.  The director knows this, and it won't negate the film's relevance in the slightest.

January 25, 2011 02:01 AM #

A Sauer United States says:

Spurlock's sponsors will no doubt be pleased. As I point out, this is the second go around for Pom in this exact same story.

And clearly, this will do very well for Spurlock. (Despite his feigned naivete that he is not aware that he himself is a brand that benefits from the same kind of promotion any other brand does.)

What is the audience for this film? Anyone who is a Spurlock fan is already no doubt aware and suspicious of ad seep and over-commercializaion. The Sundance audience? Hardly the mainstream Iron Man-going crowd who might actually learn something.

January 25, 2011 09:47 AM #

Steve United States says:

The author of this article is the biggest joke of all.  Way to review a film you haven't even seen and try to justify it when you get called out.  I wonder who is paying his salary.  Oh, right.

January 25, 2011 02:59 PM #

A Sauer United States says:

And who picked up Spurlock's film? Oh right, huge product placing studio Sony.

January 25, 2011 03:31 PM #

Ethan United States says:

Your mistake is in assuming that Spurlock is reflexively against product placement, and therefore a failure (or at best a hypocrite) if the sponsors that you think he thinks he's pranking benefit from his work.  If that's his position, why does the film explicitly show him working with the sponsors to design the cross-marketing that they themselves will use?  How can Spurlock be "doublecrossed" by a POM Wonderful campaign that he himself helped to design?

As for the audience for the film: sure, we start with the Spurlock fans, who aren't about to avoid the film just because it happens to validate their concerns.  From there we move on to the much larger potential audience of people who simply like to laugh, since I can name only a handful of films I've seen at Sundance that made audiences laugh harder (and I've seen several hundred).  Will that get its numbers anywhere close to Iron Man?  Of course not.  And considering that it cost a measly $1.5 million which has already been recouped, it doesn't NEED to get anywhere close to be considered a genre smash.

January 25, 2011 06:52 PM #

A Sauer United States says:

No. I think he's just been outmaneuvered in this whole meta-enabled exercise in self-promotion by a brand that has already done it before in, essentially, the exact same exercise. THAT's the double-cross, Pom had already designed this campaign, used it, and then let Spurlock think he had come up with it himself.

"Why does the film explicitly show him working with the sponsors to design the cross-marketing that they themselves will use?" In a film that outright states its intentions to everyone in the audience thus negating the whole point?

In all the interviews I've read with him about this film, Spurlock seems to be under the impression that he has made a film just like any other film but with a lot more product placement. But that's not true at all.

I would be far more interested in a sincere no-stunt documentary about the struggles of a film trying to find financing and having to make the tough decisions about creative control vs. having funding. (i.e.,

I offered many times to speak with Spurlock about this and he ignored me. Then he agreed to speak with me "a few weeks before the film is released" only after this piece was published. Meanwhile, he criticized this me re: this piece for not yet having seen the film. Now, how am I going to be ready to discuss the film with him THEN if I still haven't seen the film? It seems he's fine with me writing about it a week before its release without having seen it, but not now without having seen it.

January 25, 2011 09:18 PM #

Ethan United States says:

I've read that last paragraph a few times, and it still comes off as, "Because Spurlock didn't respond to my request for an interview that he had no obligation to grant, I felt free to make stuff up."  It's just a darn peculiar form of journalism.  Does it truly not bother you to write things that, after the film is released if not before, your readers are going to realize simply aren't true?  For instance: you take Spurlock's quotes that it is brand partners that made Iron Man "*so* successful" and that they are "*part of* what makes those big films *even bigger*" (my emphases) and conclude that he "clearly doesn't understand that it's not the brand partners that make Iron Man popular; it's Iron Man's popularity that makes brands want to partner with it."  How can he say something explicitly in his film that he doesn't understand?  Because yes, the film does use Iron Man as a launching point for its discussion of how cross-marketing is *mutually* beneficial.  (If it weren't, why on earth would POM and co. engage in it?)

I think it's great that you'd like to see a documentary about "a film trying to find financing and having to make the tough decisions about creative control vs. having funding."  That sounds excellent, and while I'm aware that you already have a gig, maybe you'd consider making it?

January 26, 2011 10:14 AM #

Product Placement Spain says:



El product placement o emplazamiento de producto es toda forma de comunicación comercial audiovisual consistente en incluir, mostrar o referirse a un producto, servicio o marca comercial de manera que figure en un programa.

La agencia especializada Product Placement (, con sede en Madrid (España) y con más de 20 años como especialistas en esta técnica publicitaria, se presenta para hacer frente a la creciente perdida de efectividad de los anuncios televisivos tradicionales debida a la saturación de spots y pausas comerciales, al zapping, a la  fragmentación de audiencias por la aparición y maneras de consumir los nuevos canales de televisión digital, a la caida de la inversión en publicidad convencional en televisión, al descenso de las ayudas estatales a medios de comunicación y como vía de financiación para producciones de obras audiovisuales, películas, series, animación y programas de entretenimiento para televisión y videojuegos.

El product placement llega a los consumidores de manera muy efectiva, no intrusiva, logra elevados índices de impactos, establece importantes conexiones emocionales con los consumidores y es más económica que la publicidad tradicional.

El product placement, los promerciales y dramerciales, serán la técnica publicitaria, la herramienta de marketing y la comunicación comercial audiovisual de los próximos años.

"Actualmente estamos buscando joint ventures, asociaciones, alianzas comerciales y estratégicas de ámbito global, para poder llegar a una comunidad más amplia en la planificación de las campañas."

January 31, 2011 05:40 AM #

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