[22 April 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Asked to describe Ban—the deodorant—as a brand, executives around a boardroom table look stumped. “That’s a great question,” murmurs one, just before another takes a stab at it: “Ban is a superior technology.” Cut to Morgan Spurlock, looking decidedly unimpressed. Do you really want a superior technology in your underarms, he wonders out loud, more or less doing their job for them. “Ban is fresh,” suggests someone else. Now we’re getting somewhere.
That is, we’re getting at what it means to sell a product, how that process works and what sort of thinking goes into it. (And yes, despite too many appearances, some thinking does go into it.) As Spurlock makes abundantly and entertainingly clear in Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, that process is at once obvious and insidious, insipid and inspired. As Spurlock shows off the mock ads he’s made to sell Ban in and for his movie—shots of a shirtless Spurlock applying the product and a rapturous Spurlock sniffing it—the suits look happy. This is a guy who knows how to sell stuff.
Indeed, this is the primary point and joke of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, that Spurlock is selling more stuff. Much like Super Size Me, it begins with an idea no one will debate, this time, that product placement is everywhere. As he doesn’t need to sell that, he sets instead to looking at how such selling works. If the examples and insights offered here are not surprising—executives like the Ban folks perform for cameras and (might) play dumb as much as anyone who doesn’t want his acumen or cynicism exposed—they are presented so they seem amusing, at times even hilarious.
When Spurlock feigns surprise that he is himself a brand—given his documentaries and the reality TV series, 30 Days—he acts out how easy it is to forget the process, whether you’re consumer or consumed. Much of the film is an act like this, making visible what you already know, drawing attention to what you assume or ignore because it seems like so much wallpaper. Ads are everywhere, and products or their likenesses are placed in every spot you might glimpse (billboards, busses, schoolyards, park benches, sports arenas), even if their effects may be less explicit.
The documentary begins a little slowly, as Spurlock explains his idea—again and again—to you and to prospective sponsors, that he means to make a documentary about product placement, all the while placing products and also documenting conversations about how that gets done. He also makes some show of his worry about “selling out,” or compromising his integrity, performances that don’t become any more convincing in a rejected cold calls montage or interviews with experts on cultural corruption like Todd Gitlin or Quentin Tarantino or even Brett Ratner.
While it’s possible to see the movie as lamenting a general or particular loss of integrity, it actually doesn’t seem so interested in pronouncement and investigation. Again, like Spurlock’s other projects, it keeps focused on pointing out what you already know, conjuring laughs out of the excesses. It’s not breaking down systems or offering solutions. It’s framing absurdity that has become the norm.
Indeed, the cleverest move by The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is structural, as it exemplifies the problem it’s elucidating. It’s soon clear that any so-called prospective sponsors who appear have already come to terms and are actual sponsors. Such doubling back becomes a gag and a strategy, as the film takes great glee in underlining, highlighting, and repeating its own production process. Spurlock sits with sponsors or advisors, then drives Mini Coopers, gases up at Sheetz stations while holding cups of Sheetz coffee, wears Merrell shoes (even pitching them to Ralph Nader), washes his and his young son’s (and a pony’s) hair with Mane ‘n Tail shampoo, stays at Hyatt’s Hotels, and drinks lots of Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice.
Each of these ads is another joke, whether Spurlock is showing off the product in what seems a recognizable life activity (fast-motion clips show him driving a variety of Mini Coopers into his driveway) or in sort of faux ads he’s concocted (flying on Jet Blue, the greatest airline, or showing the Pom Wonderful people his idea for a campaign based on pomegranates’ sexual benefits). When he asks OK Go to write a closing credits song, “The Greatest Song Ever Heard”, and pays Altoona, PA $25,000 to name itself renamed Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold for two months, the circle of promotion seems complete.
But of course, it can never be. As much as Spurlock makes fun of the deal-making process—the pitches and the meetings and the wolfed-down lunches—the result seems both daunting and prosaic. As Norm of Norm Marshall & Associates, Inc., an LA outfit that arranges for products to be placed tells Spurlock, “Brands can dictate conditions under which their products can be advertised,” meaning that movies and other products are shaped to suit their contracts. This revelation, like observations by Peter Berg (“G.E. is my boss, really, and they don’t give a flying fuck about art”) or Mark Crispin Miller (“You’re nothing or a loser, you’re stupid unless you buy this thing”), is not news. Instead, it reinforces the film’s essential structure, its repetition and its self-satisfied illusion. Its pitch is its product.
In this sense, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is what it says it is, or at least what it pretends it’s saying it is. It exists inside big scare quotes. It’s relative and absolute, fake but also real enough. “Can you trust what ads say?” wonders Spurlock. “Can you wonder what regular people say?” (And if there’s a difference between these questions, how does that difference matter?) For all the asides and the exaggerations, the winking and the mugging, the movie is actually not so much cynical—though it assumes its consumers are—as it is matter of fact. Whatever you take fact to be.