There's rich irony behind Morgan Spurlock making a documentary about the virulent infiltration of product placement into movies. Few films, and certainly no documentaries, have benefited more from brand integration than Super Size Me, Spurlock's ballyhooed doc debut in which the filmmaker ate nothing but McDonald's food for a month to illustrate the grip obesity has on America.
While this particular product placement was not necessarily for McDonald's financial benefit, it was integral to the film's popularity. The interest level in Super Size Me would not have been nearly as stratospheric had Spurlock just filmed himself for 30 days eating Grandma's apple pie and scarfing down cheeseburgers off the backyard grill. Taking on Mickey D's gave the movie its moxie.
Seven years later, Spurlock is aghast to find marketing everywhere, even on the silver screen. So the grand idea behind POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is that Spurlock will produce a documentary about product placement in films (and society beyond) that features his efforts to solicit corporate sponsors willing to pay to place their products throughout his "docbuster."
Camera crew in tow, Spurlock visits the boardrooms of beverage producers, hotel chains, car makers, gas stations, clothiers and makers of a shampoo made for both human and equine use, offering everything from commercial airtime during the film to conventional product placement during Spurlock's many interviews. These interviews are often held in close proximity to sponsoring airplanes or convenience stores. A stick of deodorant conspicuously sits in front of Quentin Tarantino during his chat with Spurlock. And, yes, Spurlock sips a certain brand of pomegranate juice every chance he gets.
The gimmick is cute enough, but a true dissection of the issue at hand requires a ruthless, razor-sharp scalpel, which Spurlock does not wield. Instead, he buttresses the film's bona fides with celebrity cred, talking with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, Friday Night Lights producer Peter Berg, Lost producer J.J. Abrams and others in between the blather of industry insiders and some particularly execrable man-on-the-street encounters that do nothing to illuminate the narrative. ("Is there truth in advertising?" is one banal topic of conversation that goes nowhere.)
Spurlock ventures out for an excursion to a Florida school system that's selling ad space on property fencing and inside buses to generate needed revenue. In Sao Paulo, Brazil, the only evidence he offers to gauge the effect of the city's ban on outdoor advertising is the commentary of random citizens, who remark how they're not as distracted as they used to be.
The film's most eye-raising moment is also marked by futility. To demonstrate the science of "neuromarketing," Spurlock undergoes an MRI to show how his brain reacts to certain commercial stimuli. It's spooky, Clockwork Orange stuff, but Spurlock fails to tell us how companies employ this technology to fashion their marketing plans.
The clever, truly satirical heart of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is that, despite witnessing the purpose and mechanism behind the products placed throughout this film, viewers will still be more prone to try out the shoes, shampoo and, of course, fruit juice being openly peddled. Yet, while Spurlock rhetorically wonders whether he's "selling out or buying in," these semantics disguise the film's true moral dilemma. It takes money to makes movies, including documentaries, for which both the production costs and funding sources are lower. After Super Size Me, which grossed more than $20 million worldwide off a $65,000 production budget, Spurlock spent much more to make his follow-up, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?, which only earned around $650,000.
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is Spurlock's vehicle to access the corporate quick money needed to finance his latest cinematic vanity project. In return, he attempts to insulate himself from criticism by meekly dressing down the very profiteering he's exploiting. It's a huckster's dream: Spurlock makes his movie, the sponsors promote their brand and the film distributor pockets a tidy sum. The audience is the one left holding the shopping bag.