A white male, 25-54 years old, middle class and clean shaven, stands at a Sheetz gas pump, eating a fresh Sheetz sandwich and filling his car with reliable Sheetz fuel. He's centered in the frame, being peppered with questions from an interviewer and pondering aloud over whether product placement is evil and what constitutes selling out. But his words are, secretly, just background noise, a muzak soundtrack to the visual. In reality, he's the scenery; after all, he didn't pay to be in the film. Sheetz did.
It's about two thirds into Morgan Spurlock's "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" that the filmmaker's point about the overwhelming presence of marketing in movies, and his clever way of making it, truly clicks. A deviously meta moment, it follows a large chunk of the "Supersize Me" documentary filmmaker's attempts to sell advertising in a film to finance a film about advertising.
After hustling between boardroom meetings filled with cautious corporate executives and paranoid PR reps, Spurlock has convinced enough sponsors -- Ban deodorant, Sheetz, Mini Cooper and Pom amongst the most prominent -- to buy product placement in his documentary, which, of course, was being filmed as they speak, right there in that boardroom.
It's a whole new terrain for those gutsy corporate suits; normally, they pay cash not to be the core of the existential dialogue of a scene, but to exist as subliminal, incidental background influencers. It was when advertisers began to go from bit part to driving the story that Spurlock decided that, after "seeing tons and tons of terrible product placement in film and TV for years," he needed to draw the curtain back and show the public just how often their eyes and minds were being sold.
"The inciting incident, for me what was the straw that broke the camel's back was watching 'Heroes.' Now, 'Heroes,' I loved it -- season one of 'Heroes' was one of the best TV seasons I've ever seen in my whole life. Season two, the wheels started to fall off the bus quick," Spurlock remembered in an interview with The Huffington Post. "It was an episode in which Hayden Panettiere's character is depressed about a lonely birthday, only to be cheered up by a gift from her father.
"He reaches into his pocket and pulls out something and it cuts to the front of the car, the camera dollies past, the Nissan logo goes through the frame, it cuts back in, holding the keys in front of her face, rack focus on her face and she goes, 'Ahh! The Rogue! The Nissan Rogue! Oh my god! You got me the Rogue! I can't believe it's the Rogue!'" Spurlock laughs incredulously. "And I was in shock. I was like, wow, that really just happened, I really just saw a commercial right there in the middle of the show."
The film, borne out of a chat with his equally baffled producing partner the next day, opens with a montage of product placement throughout the years, from fully bought and paid for 1950's TV shows to ET's fondness for Reese's Pieces to the everything but a Coca Cola tattoo Simon Cowell wore on 'American Idol' for nine seasons. The pattern firmly established for even the most dense (or blissfully unaware) consumer of media, Spurlock sets out to get his own, unique piece of the pie. So, he sets off to sell brands on joining a documentary about, in part, selling brands on joining a documentary.
As a filmmaker, Spurlock understands issues of financing and the high cost of creating television and film. Morally, he has great struggles with the concept of selling out the viewer's mind to subconscious cravings for certain brands, giving them unnatural desires to spend money -- in one scene, he watches ads and undergoes advanced brain scans to prove their secret impact on the human psyche. But artistically, he's not against any and all product placement -- "I'm much more distracted when I see someone drink something that says 'beer' on a white can, something straight out of 'Repo Man,'" he said -- but the issue for him is when it becomes craven and exploitative to the point that those ad-induced brain waves are the norm, and when the advertisers begin to drive a story in a direction that a writer had not intended to travel.
"I also don't want to suddenly feel like like I'm watching a 90 minute commercial," he reasoned. "I think there's a fine line, and ultimately, one of the biggest things is that you have to kick all these companies out of the writers' rooms. Let the creative people do their job."
To make his point, the filmmaker pulls a quote from a colleague. "There's a great line in the film from JJ Abrams that I really agree with, which is 'I believe in storytelling, not story selling.' He says it so succinctly, where he says listen, I just want to believe these characters are real."
As he ponders in the film's third act, through interviews and confessionals, whether it's moral or not to use product placement, Spurlock also fulfills his contractual obligations to place the products of his sponsors prominently in the shots of his film, like when he films at that Sheetz or in the very clearly labeled Jet Blue terminal at a local airport. It's both dizzying and brilliant -- depending on whether he can keep his integrity. For all the money companies put up for the film -- more than $1.5 million, including promotional tie-ins -- the real question is what it will cost Spurlock. After all, corporations that pay for exposure want to get their money's worth.
For Spurlock, giving that money's worth while keeping his integrity is a tricky proposition because the very essence of his film is product placement; it exists entirely because it will service different companies and brands. Maintaining the independence of the movie, then, took some quick thinking and finessing. The brands wanted to see the final product before it premiered at Sundance over the winter, but he knew their executives viewing them in their offices, in those sorts of corporate environments, would damn the movie before it could see the light of day.
"The last thing that I would want is them sitting in their conference rooms, watching this movie through the prism of a long, tiny tunnel with blinders on, where the only thing they were seeing is their own brand and how they were seen in the movie and that's it," Spurlock explained. "And by having them come in the Sundance, which they all agreed to, so 11 of the 15 brands came to Park City, they watched it with the likes of people who would want to see it and go see it anyway, would want to go see a documentary, would be supportive of a doc and an idea like this to begin with. [The companies] got to see it as their involvement as a part of a whole. So by their seeing the audience's reaction, seeing themselves alongside all those who helped make the movie, it didn't give them pause. It reinforced why they did it to begin with."
With that victory, he was able to keep final creative control of the film, so while he does place those products, sometimes in very, very clever ways, he never hides the placement to the point that he truly is selling to the hidden crevices of our minds instead of to our capable, intellectual awareness. Without that power, he would have had to produce that dreaded 90 minute commercial.
But isn't it all, relatively speaking, inconsequential? With a down economy, multiple wars and natural disasters punishing the planet for its misuse, why would people care about whether their entertainment has made some compromising choices? His answer comes, in part, during the film, as he ventures off past Hollywood and Madison Avenue to prove that there's more than just a tenuous link between working Americans' livelihoods and what they see on TV. The very idea of product placement and advertisement, it turns out, is spilling over from our TVs and big screens to the vulnerable eyes of children in a place that should be sacred.
Spurlock notes a particularly upsetting sequence of the film in which he visits a school district in Florida that, because of incessant budget cuts, is forced to sell advertising on its busses, chain-link fences, classroom televisions and any other surface that a local dentist's logo or chain restaurant can be slapped down on. Highlighting the continuing rise of in-school entertainment production companies such as Channel One, a company that provides TVs to schools in exchange for captive audience for their ad-filled morning content, Spurlock notes that minds are truly for sale.
"Ultimately I think you want to keep stuff like this out of schools. Schools is a big one," Spurlock said, shifting to a more passionate tone when asked where he drew the most important line. "I think you do want schools to be a sacred place, I think you do want school to be a place where, the girl [interviewed in a classroom] says such a great thing in the movie, she says, 'School should teach you how to think, not what to think.' And I loved that she said that, because she's spot on. That's exactly what a school should be. But I think from Channel One to what's happening now with corporations and advertisers wanting to come in, kind of capitalizing on these cash strapped school districts, is problematic."
It may seem like long leap from a car logo in a TV show about super heroes, but Spurlock has at least illuminated the path. Whether the writer's room can grab control of the ending could determine whether we one day end up with General Electric Presents Recess. But at least there's some good news for Spurlock: he's now a pretty good business man.
"Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" opens in limited release on Friday, April 22nd.