This is Your Brain on Ads: Morgan Spurlock's Greatest Movie Ever Sold

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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?

by Sara Reihani
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3 Comments Have Been Posted

I'm so glad for this review,

I'm so glad for this review, I was pretty horrified when I saw the trailer. While Spurlock, probably with all the best intentions is trying to be ironic and transparent, really he's just advertising to us, we may think we are immune to advertising but we're not, and the advertisers know that. *facepalm*

Ego Psychology

It goes much deeper then this:
When Sigmund Freud hypothesized the existence of unconscious mental forces, he did not foresee his theories being used for mass consumer marketing in America. There were those in the media who did understand the implications of his theories, most notably his nephew, Edward L. Bernays. However, it was not so much Bernays, but the mass consumer marketers schooled in Pschodynamics , who took his theories and applied them to advertising.
The primary process of thinking, the unconscious, is “a place where ideas are guided by immediate wish fulfillment, with no concern for logic, morality, time sequence, causal connection and the demands of external reality”(Blum, page 2). The mass marketers know this and use free association to mine the unconscious in a process known as the focus group. The goal is to get the consumers “musing absentmindedly about all the pleasures, joys, enthusiasms, agonies, nightmares, apprehensions the product recalls to them”(Smith quote, in Packard, 1957, p.31) While Freud used free association in order to reveal the unconscious in order to treat the patient, mass marketers exploit free association in order to sell them products.
This technique of depth psychology was originally called Motivational Research and was popularized by Dr. Ernest Dichter. Dichter, a doctorate in psychology had lived and worked on the same street in Vienna as Freud. He achieved his doctorate under Charlotte Buehler at the University of Vienna and received psychoanalysis under Dr. Wilhelm Steckel, a follower of Freud who later Freud later describes as an example of “moral insanity”.
The postwar boom in from 1946 to 1973 saw advertising experience the largest dollar growth in any industry in the United States centered in New York City. Co incidentally, a brilliant cluster of European refugee analysts called “The New York Group”, “the group associated with the full flowering of ego psychology,- Ernest Kris, Heinz Hartmann, Rene Spitz, Jacobson, Mahler, Annie Reich, Waelder, Fenichel- came to work and teach at the New York Psychoanylitical Institute, then and now the single largest affiliate of the American Psychoanaylitic Institute”(Wallerstein, page. The epicenter of American ego psychology resided on 82nd street in New York City, 3 blocks away from Madison Avenue, the epicenter of American advertising. The mad men were in analysis.
The ego’s task is to mediate between the id, the infantile wishes and libidinous desires , and the superego, the part that responds to societal or social rules. Sometimes designated as the ego ideal, the superego deals with conscious, self-criticism, prohibitions and guilt feelings.(page 108, Butler-Bowden) In The Ego and the Id (1923) Freud used the ego to represent reality, and through the erection of defenses, to channel and control internal drive pressure in the face of reality (including the demands of social convention and morality). (Black Mitchell, page 24). The ego needs to test reality- to distinguish fact from fiction, the rational from the wishful. The ego was also the locus of resistance. For the classical analyst, the analysis of the patient’s free association and resistances(or defenses) exposed both “secret feelings and memories, and the defenses, the thoughts and feelings rejecting those secret feelings and memories”. (page 7, Black, Mitchell)
The admen’s job in the focus group free association was to also expose resistance (defenses) that is employed by the ego to ward off unacceptable sexual and aggressive urges. These impulsive urges take an object which can be “another person, oneself, or anything else in the environment.” The marketer’s job is to understand the defenses around the consumer object, then steer the aim of the drive towards that product. The admen’s job is to interpret the defense mechanisms that the ego employs. Marketers and either bypass defense mechanisms such as denial, repression, and reaction formation, or use the distortions of displacement, introjections, projection, sublimation and regression in order to sell products. Far from dismantling the pathological ego defenses, as the ego psychologists might, the admen want to understand them to exploit them. The admen and the analyst both want to discern subtle workings of defensive operations within the free associations themselves- one for therapeutic value, the other to bolster infantile aggression and sexual urges in order to sell products. They both rely on the interpretations of the free association. Anna Freud said that the task of the analyst is to bring the unconscious into the conscious. The market researcher’s aims are to keep the workings of the ego unconscious out of awareness, then disguise it as a consumer “need”.
Sublimation is a key defense mechanism that the marketer interprets and employs. Sublimation is where the diversion of sexual and aggressive impulses is directed to more acceptable social uses. Heinz Hartmann’s “On the Theory of Sublimation” said that sublimation is an “omnibus term” that can encompass reactive formation and displacement. The current definitions of sublimation “eliminate… value judgments (i.e.lofty artistic and creative aims) and to speaks of ego-syntonic aims.(p217 Hartmann 1964).He then goes on to say “the spreading of cathexis on objects…

This is interesting stuff, is

Super size me as advertising

I found super size me to be highly effective advertisement for McDonalds. I cannot watch that movie without dreaming of fries. I don't think this topic is new to spurlock's genre.

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