Oscar-nominated filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, whose previous documentaries include a McDonald’s smack down and Osama Bin Laden bounty hunt, now explores the world of product placement, marketing, and advertising in POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a film that was fully financed through product placement by various brands, all of which are integrated transparently into the film. The documentary seeks to unmask the marketing process which ultimately informs our everyday entertainment decisions. Humorously told with tongue firmly in cheek, Spurlock uncovers closely-guarded secrets in the movie advertising industry that are not only shocking, but scary.
You might think this is nothing new; you might even be sure that product placement in movies has been documented to the point of over-saturation. Modern audiences are so attuned and aware of the hidden ads, that they cringe at the sight of them in their favorite sit-coms, films, or music videos. But as Spurlock uncovers, there’s a new process in the fashioning of trailers, as a way to market a film, with highly scientific, almost Clockwork-Orange-esque implications behind it.
It’s referred to as “neuro-marketing.” The people behind movie trailers discovered a formula which increases a trailers’ effectiveness on an audience’s subconscious brains. Trailers that appeal to “fear,” “cravings,” and “sex” have the longest-lasting impressions on an audience, making the urge to see the film overpowering. Neuro-marketing therefore insures that trailers contain highly suggestive images catering to either/all of these three emotional states.
Spurlock submits himself to an invasive and comprehensive Neuro-marketing MRI scan, during which the Neuro-Marketeers scan the effects on his brain whilst inundated with product placement messages shown to provoke the three emotional states. The cycle of images he’s bombarded with are so rapid and jarring that his brain struggles to deal with them. Here we see the effects of advertising on our brains in three ways:
- Drugging effect: When Spurlock emerges from the scan, without even realizing it, he drearily mumbles that he wants a Coke. Later, when presented with the results of his scan, we’re shown how his brain lit up the charts at the sight of a Coke in the trailer, specifically in his Amigdala, a part of the brain responsible for regulating and registering the emotion of fear. As a response to the Coke imagery, his Amigdala released a massive amount of dopamine. To put it simply, this translates as, you guessed it: addiction.
- Subconscious dreams: In conversation with Ralph Nader, Spurlock asks where people can go to experience an advertising-free zone. Nader curmudgeonly responds, “to sleep.” But Spurlock himself admits that during and after his MRI, even his dreams began to form themselves into 30-second advertisement-like scenarios, containing the strong motifs of fear, cravings, and sex.
- Emotional happiness: When we see something as neutral as a toothpaste advert, “fear,” “craving,” and “sex” still play a part. The commercial instills a fear in you that not having a white enough smile will make you unhappy. Why unhappy? Because potential life-partners won’t find you attractive, therefore appealing to your sexual desires. In effect, you’ll crave that brand of toothpaste the next time you visit the drug store, as the advert has imprinted on your quest for happiness. If you’re in constant fear of falling below the standards of happiness that any particular advert or commercial promotes, you’re more likely to believe two things: that a product directly makes you happy, or that having their product is a route to happiness. Advertising banks on our insecurities, and finds ways to offer product-motivated solutions to our quest for happiness.
We can no longer flippantly ignore advertising as something that has no effect on our everyday choices when it comes to products and services. Product placement and advertising have now evolved into a thorough biological approach that effectively tells marketing and PR firms what to hawk.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The most inspiring section of the film occurs when Spurlock interviews municipal government reps in the city of Sao Paulo, who instituted a law effectively banning all billboards and ads outdoors—a “Clean City” campaign, in an effort to remove “visual” pollution, as they called it. 90% of Sao Paolo citizens liked it, finding that it gave them back their ability to focus. Now merchants do internet and word-of-mouth marketing, and look for referrals, which can be seen as a more grassroots, organic approach to advertising.
This is some epic food for thought for the next time you catch the latest Tom Cruise blockbuster or WB network drama, and aren’t sure if what you’re seeing is genuine art, or mere product placement.
POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold will premiere at the Hot Docs film festival April 28th, and open in select cities across North America on May 6th.
(Photo: Mongrel Media)