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.