April 23, 2011

MOVIES: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Morgan Spurlock, 2011)

Morgan Spurlock's latest documentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, explores product placement through a sort of immersion technique. The movie is entirely funded by product placement, and much of the movie consists of Spurlock's meetings with potential corporate sponsors about how they might be promoted in the movie. The movie winds up with an official car, an offical airline, an official hotel, etc., and the three largest sponsors get actual 30-second commercials (starring Spurlock) during the film.

I'm choosing not to name any of those sponsors; after all, Spurlock may be getting paid to plug the hell out of them, but I'm not. The largest sponsor paid a million dollars for above-the-title placement; the actual full title of the movie is (Sponsor Name) Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

In addition to meetings with sponsors, Spurlock talks to brand consultants (his own brand is identified as "mindful/playful," and many of the brands he targets as participants fall into the same general type), lawyers, consumer advocates (Ralph Nader shows up to scowl and mutter about how doomed we all are), and media critics. A few directors talk about their own experiences with product placement; Quentin Tarantino says he's never done much of it, mostly because he keeps getting turned down.

Spurlock approaches the subject in his usual style; he's the uninformed, curious layman, inviting us along as he discovers what goes into product placement. To be sure, there's a certain disingenuousness in that style -- Spurlock knows exactly what message he wants to send -- but as populist documentarians go, I find Spurlock's droll, laidback presentation more appealing than Michael Moore's angry polemicist.

Any company willing to take part in a project like this has to have at least some sense of humor about itself, and Spurlock deftly walks a fine line between plugging and gently teasing his sponsors. Part of his success there derives from the fact that a lot of the teasing seems self-directed; there's a slight "can you believe I have to do this nonsense?" wink in his most blatant plugs. The plugs don't end on screen, by the way; when I bought my ticket, I was handed a small assortment of samples and coupons from some of the movie's sponsors.

If you're a reasonably aware moviegoer, I don't think Spurlock is going to tell you anything you don't already know, but we don't normally get so close a view of the process. And with Spurlock as a guide, I had a lot of fun watching the sausage being made.

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