Dir. Morgan Spurlock
(2011, PG-13, 87 min)

Has Morgan Spurlock sold out by accepting advertiser money to produce The Greatest Movie Ever Sold? Certainly not. All the instances of advertising in this film, even the blatant 30-second spots, are nods to themselves, a satirical acknowledgment of their own insidiousness. The point is to draw attention to what we increasingly take for granted; when we watch one of Spurlock’s commercials for POM Wonderful or JetBlue, we’re really watching ourselves watching those commercials, taking stock of our own consumption, and suddenly made aware of how casually we accept the manipulation that is the basic vocabulary of advertising.

What makes the film especially sobering, as an inevitable by-product of its pursuit of brand partners, is that satire may not matter. The companies that funded the film look good for participating in it, not because we respond to their specific ads or believe Spurlock’s effusive, winking endorsements, but because the Spurlock “brand” gives them hipster, indie, anti-establishment cachet by association, and that is precisely what they’re looking for. We’re Old Navy! And we’re in a movie by the guy who took on McDonald’s! Doesn’t that make us bold, savvy, and cool?

But that fact doesn’t undermine the film. In fact, I think it makes it even better; by not only shining a light on the process of consumer manipulation, but actually demonstrating it, the film exposes all the more completely how advertising functions in our daily lives, and how scary that can be. The power of money over those who are subject to it is quite alarming; consider late scenes surveying a Florida school district so underfunded that they must lease their spaces – even the insides of school buses – to advertisers in order to stay afloat. To say that large companies “target” these students is apt; as shown in this film, advertising is undertaken almost as a kind of psychological warfare. (Case in point: Spurlock shows us the creepy way Hollywood studios test their movie trailers.)

Is there anything inherently evil about companies simply displaying to us the products they want us to buy? Not necessarily, but at the level of product saturation we have reached in Western society, companies have developed the power not only to display themselves to us but to control how we view them. Early scenes in this film of pitch meetings with the marketing departments of major companies show just how jealously they guard their carefully tailored images, and how fiercely they will protect themselves against negative publicity. One may think that artistic integrity is a quaint concern, but consider the free-speech implications of big businesses controlling what you say and how you say it. Remember when the beef industry sued Oprah Winfrey just for saying she didn’t like their product on-air? This is not just about Chuck shilling for Subway sandwiches, it’s about the dangerous interplay between money and information.

Spurlock’s style is brisk and lighthearted, playful about his subject, but his good humor in itself is subversive. During an interview with consumer advocate Ralph Nader, discussing the ubiquity of product placement, Spurlock removes one of his shoes, apropos of nothing, and extols the virtues of Merrell brand footwear. However, it gets to the point where, even in a film this upfront, we stop noticing that, say, there is a bottle of POM Wonderful visible during nearly every interview segment. That, I think, is our greatest peril – becoming so anesthetized to constant advertising that we forget it’s there, and then we’ll start to mistake it for reality.

 

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