Branding Documentary

I’ve been fascinated by the promotion for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I haven’t seen the film yet, but Spurlock has been conducting a number of interviews and engaging in a number of promotional activities for a documentary that is about product placement. The promotional materials capitalize on many of the qualities that Spurlock displayed in Super Size Me: his characteristic laid-back, even self-deprecating, wit mixed with a gently critical edge that comments wryly, in this case, on the role of product placement in Hollywood entertainment.

As Spurlock notes in this interview with David Poland, the film is designed to build upon the publicity he generates. In fact, Pom Wonderful has agreed to certain incentives that will pay even more every time their beverages are mentioned alongside of the documentary, generating an amusing bit toward the end where Spurlock imagines mentioning the drink at the Oscars and, therefore, generating hundreds of millions of “media impressions.” At the same time, Spurlock himself becomes attached to certain brands, welcoming customers to flights on JetBlue and to stays at Hyatt Hotels or, even more oddly, smiling from soda cups sold at Sheetz Convenience Stores (which I may try to track down when I pick up my fiancee at the airport, since there is a Sheetz nearby). There are also financial incentives for Greatest Movie if it plays in over 250 theaters or, I think, if its box office achieves a certain level.

Toward the end of the interview with Poland, Spurlock even points out that when he “the meta-narrative could continue on–it will definitely continue on into the DVD at least.” He adds that if the movie were to play overseas, he could seek out new sponsors that would be more appropriate to that audience, joking that “you’d have to get a beer sponsor in England.” Whether such comments are tongue-in-cheek or not, Spurlock has, in fact, managed to use his documentary–and the publicity surrounding it–to provoke a useful conversation about the role of product placement in TV and movies, a role that has changed somewhat now that audiences can either fast-forward through ads or avoid them altogether by watching online versions of the show. To that end, I enjoyed reading the New York Magazine interview with Spurlock, in which he lists the five “worst” incidents of product placement, including the scene from Heroes that inspired the film, in which Hayden Panettiere’s father gives her the keys to a Nissan Rogue. The camera pans, quite blatantly across the front of the car, which gets name-dropped something like four times. And as the father hands her the keys–in soft focus–it plays just like an automobile ad. The New York Magazine article has the added bonus of pointing out that product placement is nothing new. Edison was notorious for it in his early films, and the novelist Jules Verne engaged in the practice as well.

There is, of course, a fuzzy line between Spurlock’s form of critique and his own complete immersion in the practices of product placement, but in much the same way that Super Size Me helped spark a conversation about fast food, it will be interesting to see what sorts of reactions Spurlock is able to achieve with this film. And of course, in writing this post, I am acutely aware of the fact that I am participating in the process of promoting not only Spurlock’s film but also some of the products he has included in his documentary project, and this degree of product placement could be the source of dystopian anxiety, as we see in M.T. Anderson’s young adult novel, Feed, or it could also breed cynicism, a response that even Ralph Nader seems to express in the film’s trailer when he suggests that “sleep” is the only escape from branding. But hopefully the film will find another approach, one that allows us to engage with these marketing practices in slightly more complicated ways.

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