In POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, director Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?) exposes the shady practice of product placement... by documenting his efforts to make a movie funded entirely by product placement. Got that? It's a plate-spinning act that actually works, offering a sly and entertaining glimpse into the strange landscape of 21st Century advertising.
We talked with the filmmaker—who showed up in a suit covered in his corporate sponsors' logos—about being loathed by McDonald's, humiliated by Abercrombie & Fitch, and ultimately seduced by the art of the hard sell.
Morgan Spurlock: So am I going to be eviscerated?
Gawker: I don't think so. Although your naked body is all over the site right now.
I saw! Somebody sent me a link to the article about Carrot Top and said, "I don't know what's worse—how Carrot Top looks or seeing you naked everywhere."
So, are you sick of selling your movie yet?
I better not be, because it's just started. This is Week 3 of the press tour in the United States, and I'll probably continue with the tour as it expands out for another two to three weeks. And then the international will start. So I'll be selling for months.
And how does it make you feel? Are you a natural born salesman?
It makes me feel like I'm going to have to get a couple more suits. This film made me a much better salesman. This film is all about the hustle. I had to hustle harder, work harder, pitch harder, sell harder than I've done on anything. And face more rejection and character assassinations! Like, I would call people like Abercrombie & Fitch and the person would say on the phone, "Have you looked in the mirror? Do you want me to tell you why are aren't Abercrombie material?"
How many companies did you have to approach before one bit?
Hundreds. Before the first one came on, we called every advertising agency, and they all said no, with the exception of Kirschenbaum and Bond. Every product placement company said no, and only two product placement people would even go on camera to do interviews. Their concern was that they would somehow ruin their business by shining a light on product placement. They want to be invisible. They want everyone to believe that this just happens. Ultimately what the film does a great job of doing is that it shows you Oz. It shows you how the sausage is made.
How do you define the line between "acceptable" or "unacceptable" product placement?
I'm a realist. I'm not someone who wants to see everyone drinking those white cans of beer like in Repo Man. We live in a world where people do drink Pepsi, and they drive Camaros, and wear Reeboks. Ultimately, if you want [your story] to be based in this place and time, those things are in the world. Walk outside: There's a Starbucks 50 feet away. Yes, you are going to see brands out in the world. But what I don't need to see is [he holds up a bottle of POM Wonderful] "brand" out in the world.
Are you concerned at all that with this film you might be contributing to the perception that you are anti-capitalist or anti-corporate America?
Look at the suit I'm wearing! How can I be anti-capitalist? I own a business. You can't run a business and not be a capitalist. But I'm a big believer that doing good and doing well don't have to be mutually exclusive. You can do something that is profitable and at the same time do something that is a public service, and create change and an impact. I think this film does a really great job of using their money — people who do this stuff all the time, advertise and market to certain people — to light that fire. I think it's a great way to start that conversation.
Do you think you're responsible for the healthy menu choices you now see when you walk into a McDonald's?
McDonald's says no. McDonald's says it has absolutely nothing to do with [Super Size Me] when they did interviews in the beginning. That's a big ship to turn around, and a lot of that happened very quickly after the film [came out]. Did some of that get fast-tracked? Were they already talking about it? Because literally, you couldn't turn on the TV without hearing about the obesity epidemic at that time. It was pre- the invasion of Iraq and post-9-11, so this was the demon at that time. I would say that yeah, the film probably helped fast-track [those changes] in some ways.
In the film, you undergo a process called "neuromarketing." I wonder if you could describe that experience?
Crazy. It's literally like A Clockwork Orange, when you see Alex strapped in a chair watching ultra-violent movies with eyelids peeled open, and they're putting the drops in his eyes. It felt like that. You're strapped into an MRI, you can't move. For the first hour they calibrate the machine, and for the next hour they're showing you commercials over and over again. And they measure the brainscan, and how you brain reacts to the commercials you're watching.
In the film, I did it by myself, but usually when they do that they do it with two or three hundred people. They get an average to how those people reacted, and then they re-cut commercial to address just the "desire centers" — the parts of your brain that respond to fear, craving, sexual desire. So they end up putting out a commercial that affects most of the population. It's kind of like this Minority Report, "pre-cog" advertising that gets you to want to buy something before you even know that you want to buy it.
[Photos of Spurlock at this week's premiere of "The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" and the premiere of "Super Size Me" (2004) via Getty Images]