Maybe by now you've heard of Super Size Me director Morgan Spurlock's most recent feature: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, a documentary about product placement financed entirely by product placement. The film premiered at Sundance 2011, played to a packed house at SXSW last month and received a limited US theatrical release on Friday.
The film documents the entire process of product placement: we watch Spurlock solicit corporations for sponsorship, negotiate exposure quotas, broker how much control the sponsor companies will have over the completed film and pitch ideas for the three 30-second commercials that appear in the film. To fulfill his exposure quotas and complete the cycle of co-promotion, Spurlock buys ad space in a Florida high school—cheap rate, captive audience—and brokers a deal with Sheetz, a Pennsylvania-based gas station/fast food chain, to get ads for Greatest Movie on a line of collector cups. Let me rephrase that: The guy who previously condemned American public schools for supplying adolescents with Coca-Cola and fries now has his mug plastered all over plastic soda cups at a fast food chain that serves mac-and-cheese bites (bitez?) as well as trucks, fences, and buses at a public high school.
It's clear that Spurlock approached this project with the intent of shaking up viewers' expectations, cultivating sensationalism, and crossing every boundary of common decency. He shamelessly shills shoes to Ralph Nader and even gets the town of Altoona, Pennsylvania to temporarily rename itself POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (asking price: $25,000). It's a stunt, just like Super Size Me was a stunt. But Super Size Me was bait that worked; it reached people in a way that books like Fast Food Nation didn't and delivered a clear message ("don't eat at McDonald's") in an accessible, entertaining way. With Greatest Movie, Spurlock has pulled off a much bigger stunt, and his style is still entertaining, but the point is much less clear. Spurlock visits Sao Paulo, Brazil, which recently banned all outdoor advertising, only to comment that "it's nice." There aren't many interviews, statistics or other information from which viewers can draw their own conclusions. The lawyers and legislators Spurlock talks to are mostly fighting for product placement in all media to be more transparent, and transparency is the selling point of Greatest Movie, but the film never pushes for more than that.
The most exciting parts of the documentary are Spurlock's investigations into the world of scary futuristic marketing techniques. In neuromarketing, Spurlock gets his brain scanned while being exposed to a montage of visuals from different TV commercials, then sees how his brain responded to each image: spurts of brain chemicals triggering fear, craving and sexual impulses. Almost as surreal is the concept of "brand personalities;" Spurlock undergoes an intense consultation session that's as rigorous and personal as any psychoanalysis, then is given a summary of his "brand personality" along with a list of companies with similar personalities with which he might ally himself.
Greatest Movie is a perfect display of what Spurlock's brand personality analyst calls his mix of "playful and mindful" qualities. He sells himself with a shit-eating grin, riding the wave of his own charm, which is a force unto itself—fueling the camera equipment, feeding the crew, somehow exempting him from an icky breakdown of integrity even while dressed in a suit jacket cluttered with corporate sponsor decals. He convinces you that the film's corporate doublespeak tagline ("he's not selling out, he's buying in") is actually true, that there is a difference. In Super Size Me, Spurlock was personable and occasionally aggressive, painting himself as the little guy exposing the big corporation, as if Michael Moore had passed him the torch of everyman heroism without all the bombastic self-righteousness. But with each movie since, he's moved further away from that confrontational role. He's not standing outside Roger's office waiting for an answer—he's standing in the middle of the street outside the office building, doing tricks and cracking jokes. In Greatest Movie, he and his interview subjects never really dive into the moral nitty-gritty of what it means for us to be advertised to in any spot possible, choosing instead to call for transparency. But with advertisers harvesting our online data, analyzing our brain chemistry, and moving their tactics to insidious levels of sci-fi creepiness, is knowing that we are being manipulated really the best we can do?