After observing how much Hollywood movies rely on product placement, director Morgan Spurlock set his sights on the advertising world for his new project, a doc-buster built on branding called POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. You may recall Spurlock’s original doc-buster, Super Size Me, in which he gorged on the McDonald’s menu for 30 days, revealing the scary side effects of the standard American diet. Now, he buys into marketing mania to tease out the myriad methods by which products are woven into the fabric of corporate entertainment. Playing the game, but rigging it too, Spurlock uses his new doc-buster to expose the forces we’re up against in reclaiming ad-free cultural and urban spaces.
Appearing in Toronto last night at the Hot Docs film festival premiere, Spurlock took exactly four minutes (that’s all the time I was given with him) to talk to me about Sao Paolo, McDonald’s and why he and I are on the same page (but that goes without saying).
In the film, you travel to Sao Paolo, Brazil, where the municipal government banned all outdoor billboards and advertising on buses. Do you think more cities should take the Sao Paolo approach?
I think that would be amazing! How inspiring would that be? Sao Paolo really represents a great idea of drawing the line, and “how much is too much?” It looks like someone dropped an advertising bomb there and all the advertisements disappeared. When you’re there, you start to feel differently, and really interact with the people of the city differently. But the interesting thing is once all of [the billboards] went away, crime went down, and quality of life went up. Many businesses in Sao Paolo were angry, saying, “Once the advertisements go away, people aren’t going to know what to buy, business will go down,” but the only people who went out of business were the billboard companies. They kind of got pushed outside the city limits. People weren’t all of the sudden saying “What pants should I wear? What car should I drive? What shoes do I put on?” People don’t think like that. There was still television, and the internet, there was still plenty of advertising. It just wasn’t polluting the outside.
Ideally, how would film be financed if not through product placement?
Films are financed all the time without product placement. All that product placement does is come in and supplement a marketing budget. That’s what these companies want. Mcdonald’s, Burger King…these companies come in and are paying films to have the toys in the Happy Meals, and have a giant film promotion when the film comes out. So they’re not paying for the film, they’re paying for the marketing.
It’s interesting that you mention McDonald’s Happy Meals, because last week I wrote about a new lawsuit filed against McDonald’s by a mother who wants to ban Happy Meal toys. What do you think of that, and what would you like to see come out of that?
They already banned them San Francisco, they got the toys out there! I think banning anything is a bad idea, but I think McDonald’s can’t claim zero responsibility, when one out of every six meals they serve is a happy meal. Like literally, they serve 45 million meals a day, and 7.5 million of those are Happy Meals. They have a business that caters to kids, and focuses on kids, and I think it’s a two way street with parents and the company.
In the film, you portray advertising as a form of brainwashing.
What if we brainwashed people do to good things, would that be okay?
You and I are so on the same page! There’s a whole movement that people are trying to start called Positive Placement, where there’s been TV shows in Hollywood, showing people using the fluorescent bulbs, the “Curly Q” bulbs, and [as a result] people will buy more of those because they saw them in the TV show doing it. People in movies and TV shows are shown recycling, to help people understand that recycling is a really good thing. I think there is a real idea around that concept of “positive placement” that through seeing other people doing it, will make it work. So yeah, and I think you should start that agency.
I might indeed! Finally, can you talk a bit about where the idea for this documentary came from?
The idea came from a lot conversations I’ve had about the pervasiveness of marketing of advertising. The minute I walk outside, literally someone is trying to sell me something. Minute I walk out my front door, the minute I wake up in the morning and turn on my TV. And on top of that, I started seeing films and TV shows that I love feel like commercials with product mentions. Literally product attributes became part of the dialogue. Where did that come from? Where is this going? So I got the idea of product placement, and literally getting these companies to finance my film, to generate a much larger conversation about marketing and advertising.
Thank you very much for your time sir.
Thanks, good to see ya!
Check out the gallery to see more photos of Morgan Spurlock on the Hot Docs red carpet, with and without his “advertising suit.”(Photo: Wenn)