x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Spurlock takes on product placement

The director of Super Size Me, Morgan Spurlock, has turned his attention to the influence of product placement on cinema by making The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a film finance entirely by product placement.

Product placement has a lot to answer for. One of the cheesiest exchanges in James Bond history isn't a cheeky quip to a lavish beauty or a merciless chuckle at the expense of a vanquished villain. It's a scene in the 2006 remake of Casino Royale. The double agent Vesper Gryn (Eva Green) is verbally jousting with the famous spy, played by Daniel Craig. She notes his "easy smile and expensive watch". She glances at his wrist and asks: "Rolex?" Bond looks at her and replies - and how Craig did this with a straight face, we'll never know - "Omega".

"Beautiful," nods Green. And with that, the coffers of MGM were considerably strengthened. Laughable, really, but however clunky that scene was, at least MGM was relatively upfront about who was paying for its film. The presence of products in films - or, as Hollywood likes to call it, "brand integration" - is usually far more subtle and insidious. But does it actually matter if a shiny Apple logo beams at us when our action heroes check their iPhones?

The documentary maker Morgan Spurlock - who made his name with the McDonald's baiting, Oscar-nominated film Super Size Me in 2004 - thinks it does. After watching a hilariously obvious episode of the US fantasy series Heroes - where a Nissan Rogue SUV appeared in the storyline for no reason - he decided to make product placement the subject of his next documentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

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This being Spurlock, of course, there's a playful twist. This was the man who, in Super Size Me, wanted to expose how unhealthily Americans were eating, so ate nothing but McDonald's food for a whole month. And in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, he has financed an entire film about product placement... through product placement.

In fact, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold isn't actually its full title any more. After a successful premiere at Sundance earlier this year (the trailer was revealed last week and the film is on general release from April 22) Spurlock sold the naming rights to a well-known manufacturer of pomegranate-based soft drinks which are, apparently, "healthy, honest and essential to the wellbeing of humankind". Thus, the film will be known as POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.

And if all of this sounds like the most appallingly crass idea for a movie, that's probably Spurlock's point. In his director's statement, easily downloadable from the film's website, he admits the idea was to document "both the absurdity and pervasiveness of product placement in our daily lives. I saw my role on this film as both a filmmaker and an anthropologist".

In the documentary, Spurlock decides he needs $1.5m (Dh5.5m) to make his film about how important advertising has become in our daily lives, so he visits potential sponsors such as America's "leading natural frozen food brand" Amy's Kitchen, to try to understand how entertainment and brand names collaborate. He secures co-operation from the "leading global hospitality company" Hyatt Hotels, too. Other sponsors include Mane'N'Tail - a shampoo and conditioner for horses which, apparently, "reached iconic status when the equestrian audience started using it... on themselves"!

Like Super Size Me, Spurlock throws himself headlong into the narrative, worrying that, despite his best intentions, he is still "selling out" to the companies he takes money from in order to make a movie. He's adamant that he retained editorial control - although it is telling that his statement admits: "I also wanted to maintain a healthy respect for all of the sponsors and what their goals are and meanwhile I remain the third eye observing it all."

Whether he succeeds remains to be seen. What is certain is that The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is timely stuff. Advertisers are finding it increasingly difficult to reach their intended audience in commercial breaks because most people fast-forward through the adverts using their digital recorders. The response in the UK has been to relax the rules on product placement in the shows themselves. In the deregulated US, judges on American Idol drink from flagons of Coca-Cola. Legend has it that one series of the teenage soap One Tree Hill featured a staggering 2,575 products in one season alone - for mobile phones, drinks and cosmetics.

The bottom line is the companies themselves must believe such subliminal messages work, otherwise they wouldn't pay for them.