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This film review is brought to you by POM Wonderful

Morgan Spurlock’s hilarious new documentary about product placement is not the anti-corporate exposé it thinks it is.

Tessa Mayes

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I never thought I’d write this: I like Morgan Spurlock’s new film about product placement. (And no, I haven’t been paid to say that).

Let’s be clear. I hated Super Size Me, a film in which Spurlock overeats to see if he will get fat from, er, overeating. Very tedious. But I love his hilarious new movie POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. Here he spends his entire time trying to get companies to place their products in a film about product placement. The process of getting the film funded this way is the film. And it’s also the reason why POM Wonderful, a brand of pomegranate juice, features in the title.

Spurlock is key to the film’s success. Rather than have some boring talking heads from advertising agencies tell you how product placement works, you get the ginger, handlebar-moustachioed one jumping about the screen desperately trying to demonstrate how product placement works. Although Spurlock’s always smiling, you can smell the sweat and angst as he pitches his idea to countless companies. At one point, with it looking likely that he could end up with ‘Mane and Tail’ shampoo (for humans and horses) as a sponsor, he collapses in a fit of maniacal giggling.

Now I don’t think I’m giving anything away, given that the film has been made, when I say that he does eventually get some lucrative sponsorship – $1.5million worth of product placement, plus some freebies. But we can still enjoy the ride because Spurlock’s journey is both risky and self-questioning. As he asks himself towards the end of the film, ‘was I selling out or selling in?’

However, the claim in a press release that Spurlock ‘immerses himself entirely in his subject in order to expose the inner workings of the advertising and marketing industries’ is a little self-aggrandising. Yes, he immerses himself by being a player in the industry; and yes, he exposes a few things about those industries – such as which corporate brands refuse to be associated with Spurlock. But it’s pretty gentle stuff. After all, ultimately he’s relying on product-placing companies to not only fund his film but to provide the content of the film, too. Without their willingness to participate, there’d be no film.

Still, unlike Super Size Me, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is an effective film because it’s a bit more balanced. Although it’s clear Spurlock doesn’t approve of product placement, he is not afraid of presenting both sides of the argument. So at one point a guy from Sheetz, a grocery chain which sponsors the film, aims fire at the director by accusing him of thinking Americans are idiots and that sponsors are ‘even bigger idiots’. It’s a good retort to those who worry that the public are duped by advertising.

There is no doubt that Spurlock is the poster boy for the documentary in-crowd right now. Not only was he the special guest at this year’s Sheffield Documentary Film Festival, but his work touches on the key preoccupation of most filmmakers today: how do I get my bloody film funded when TV production companies are skint and millions of internet users can nick my movie sooner than you can say ‘download’?

So for the past few years, British documentary filmmakers have been desperately competing over increasingly limited funds from TV and film-funding organisations. Even the ‘new’ areas of funding such as crowd funding, NGO funding and foundation funding often involve presenting an idea before it’s ready to the public or documentary peers – all in the hope of winning a paltry sum like £20,000 which might just about cover editing costs, a few bits of archive footage, and fund a couple of shoots abroad.

The good news is that Spurlock has shaken the British documentary crowd from its funding torpor. Because in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold he has just gone straight to the people with money and got himself a serious pot of cash. Of course, it’s all tied in with his ‘immersion’ method of documentary film-making to make a point about the subject, in this case, product placement. But in terms of finding a way of making some actual money from documentaries, why not accept sponsors’ cash for a few choice shots of Dr Pepper?

Well here’s why not according to… Spurlock. Product placement, he argues, most likely involves ‘selling out’. It’s clear during the making of the movie that he felt pressurised to limit his criticism of the brands who sponsored him and to hide things from the audience. He certainly couldn’t film the segment featuring POM Wonderful in the way he originally intended. But then again, he shows you the process of how that negotiation happened (in case you’re wondering, POM Wonderful just said no to his idea). Yet he was still able to show the negotiation, so he was able to make his point about product placement. So, no corporate censorship there.

Contrary to what Spurlock says, I don’t think product placement means selling out. Of course, a film such as The Greatest Movie Ever Sold has to emphasise how intrusive product placement is because that’s the point of the film. But films enjoying the financial benefits of product placement almost always incorporate the products more subtlely.

Nevertheless, this is where our inner artist should hate our inner businessman. That products feature in any part of a film – and perhaps especially when it’s subtle and hard to detect – should be considered a corruption of the art form. But there is another way of looking at it. Instead of treating product placement as a unique evil, we should perhaps just see it as just another form of funding. So, alongside a campaign-funded documentary on penguins and one supported by a private investor about people smoking too heavily, perhaps the documentary funded by product placement should just be considered a valid of way of getting a film made.

Besides, most of the time product placement in films is not as bad as critics make out. Even Spurlock admitted at the press conference for the Opening Night Gala and European Premiere of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold that the sponsors tried but didn’t get editorial control. He also secretly recorded telephone conversations with big companies and nobody seems to have censored them from the final cut of the movie. As one exec tells him in the movie, I love the idea of you ‘selling out but you’re not selling out’.

Of course, it would be better if it were not a toss up between poverty and having to promote products made by billion-dollar corporations. But insofar as product placement is one way films get made and people earn their living, it’s better than not getting funded and being jobless. If we want a better world, let’s not reject where money comes from in the here and now. Let’s focus instead on what it takes to change the world. And if that change is sponsored by McDonalds, so be it. They can pay for the placards, viral ads, campaign films and conferences all they like as long as we can say what we like and campaign how we want.

Now, anyone for POM?

Tessa Mayes is a writer and film director. Visit her website here. If you want to sponsor her ‘docbuster’ about the monarchy and how it keeps its secrets, please donate via PayPal. Alternatively, email her at info@tessamayes.com to find out how to transfer your donation to her bank account, if you have a product that could benefit from exposure in a documentary feature film or want more information. And thanks in advance. You’ll get a credit in the film and an invite to the premier party. And a film T-shirt for donations over £100.

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