I n his documentary, Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (Sony Pictures Classics), Morgan Spurlock set out, as he puts it, to "make a film about product placement, marketing and advertising, where the entire film is funded by product placement, marketing and advertising." The first part of the movie follows Spurlock as he meets with corporate executives in uniformly colorless boardrooms while he cheerfully pitches them on his concept for a meta-movie about corporate branding. While Spurlock is wooing execs from companies big (Hyatt) and small (there’s a particularly funny interlude with the equine/human shampoo, Mane 'n Tail ), he splices in interviews with anti-advertising heavies like Ralph Nader and big-name, blockbuster directors like Quentin Tarantino and Peter Berg, trips to São Paulo, Brazil, where outdoor advertising is banned, and visits to a Florida district that is so cash-poor that they sell ad space all over their school property. Oh, and don’t forget the words from Spurlock’s sponsors—there are commercials sprinkled throughout the narrative. The result is a film where Spurlock appears to genuinely extol the virtues of Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice (the company that bought the naming rights to the movie), while earnestly illustrating the evils of a world where schools must shill to get by.
Slate spoke with the Super Size Me director about his new movie, the likelihood that a Mountain Dew-branded playground is coming to a park near you, and how he keeps his young son from quoting commercials.
Slate : With Super Size Me , you had a more clearly defined problem—obesity in America—that you wanted to explore and publicize. The problem at the root of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold —how marketing and advertising are encroaching on our lives—is less dire. Was it difficult to dramatize?
Morgan Spurlock : I don’t agree that it’s a hazier problem. We live in a world where everything is brought to us by sponsors—ads and marketing.
Slate : But advertising and marketing don’t have the potential to kill you.
Spurlock : But what is it taking away from us? How does it affect you on a deeper level, when you turn to corporations for all your needs? There’s a bill up right now to sell naming rights to New York City parks and playgrounds . My son’s going to be going to the Mountain Dew playground and down the Cheetos slide. What we value, that’s what’s at stake.
Slate : Do you try to keep your son away from those Cheetos ads?
Spurlock : My son, who is four, is in cartoon heaven. Thomas the Tank Engine, Sponge Bob —I really try to show him these things in a commercial-free environment. The other day I walked out of the room for a second and he saw some commercials, and when I came back into the room he said, "Daddy I want to get this wrestler set." I said, that’s great, but then he said, "And all the pieces are sold separately." When he’s quoting commercials, it’s a problem.
Slate : Speaking of the influence of advertising on children, there was that scene in the movie where you were shown commercials while you had a brain scan. The scan went wild when you watched the Coke commercial. Why was your reaction to Coca Cola so intense? Was it some commercial you had watched as a kid?
Spurlock : When I have a pizza or a burger I want to have a big Coke. I had no idea [the brain scan] was going to explode. When I watched a GE commercial my brain scan was practically dead, but with others the reactions are off the charts, colors everywhere, red, orange, yellow. It’s very telling how much I loved the Coca Cola. But I don’t love it as much as I love Pom.
Slate : Very diplomatic answer! When we were watching the movie, my husband said, "This product placement is working because I want to try Pom now." You talk in the movie about personal brands—how would you define your brand, and what made it attractive to companies like Pom?
Spurlock : I think that the people who did my brand personality in the movie had it right: My brand is "mindful playful." I want to do stuff that’s smart and that’s funny. When you can make someone laugh you can make them listen. There were some brands that I was surprised said yes, like Hyatt. When they said yes I think they opened up the doorway to a lot of others, particularly blue chip, Fortune 500 companies.
Slate : During the film, you take a phone call from former NBC co-chairman Ben Silverman. He is asking you about helping Will Arnett and Jason Bateman create branded content for their new production company. I read recently that Bateman and Arnett have partnered with Denny’s to create an Internet chat show . Quentin Tarantino, who you also interviewed, called out Denny’s as a place that wouldn’t let him film in their restaurant. How do you feel about the way these branded deals might alter the content of their chat show?
Spurlock : Comedy is a safer thing to bet on. The thing with Tarantino is that [his characters would] be in a Denny’s and then they’d be killing people, so it makes sense that Denny’s would want to push back. 30 Rock has this kind of product placement all the time. Companies want to see safe, which is why so many people said no to my movie, because ultimately they didn’t have control. They want to be able to dictate what is put into the program. In the DVR world more companies are going to want to be doing sponsorship of entertainment, it’s going to be like the early days of TV. Hopefully they’ll let creative people be creative and it won’t be a 30-40 hour long commercial.
Slate : In the section of the movie where you talk to administrators at the Florida schools that are selling ad space, I was sympathetic to them because they so clearly needed the money for a greater good. Isn’t the problem here more systemic? Isn’t it more about lack of funding for schools than about the evils of advertising?
Spurlock : I agree to a point. As I’ve been screening this movie, parents come up to me and say "this is so wrong." Well I ask them, has there been a vote in your school district to raise taxes? School districts often want to raise taxes less than 1 percent, it all comes out of local real estate tax. And it’s always voted down. I see these people—they voted it down. I tell them, in a few years your kid is going to Red Bull high.
Slate : Besides voting for increased school budgets, I came away from the movie troubled by the omnipresence of marketing, but not really knowing what to do about. What else can be done?
Spurlock : I think that’s the question: Where do you start to draw the line? We do have the ability to push back and say, I don’t want all this in my life. What I love about São Paulo section of the movie is it represents an idea. It shows a group of people who say, we’re going to stop this. People said, it’s going to bankrupt the city. But crime went down, and businesses had to focus on customer service. Ultimately there is a beautiful story about drawing that line.
Interview has been condensed and edited.
Previously: Questions for Alison Brie