I get the joke about Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. I wish it was a little funnier -- or more pointed. It's provocative; it could be more so.
To be sure, Morgan Spurlock's documentaries prove that he's a showman, one with a social conscience and sly sense of humor.
So when he sets out to make a movie about the insidious and invasive nature of advertising in our modern life, you expect to learn something new -- or see him do something semi-outrageous.
And he seems to: At one point, trying to woo the Pom Wonderful people to put a big chunk of money into his film by offering above-the-title sponsor credit, he brings them ideas for a commercial that he'd insert into the middle of his film (including one about the product's effects on erectile dysfunction, that would have featured a shot of him with an erection). They shoot down all his ideas, then tell him specifically what they want. And, sure enough, a little later in the film, there's that commercial -- brought to life by Spurlock the Pitchman.
His point is that this happens to all of us everyday without us even registering it: a famous brand or its logo is thrust into our view or mentioned in a way that plants the idea in our brain to remember that brand. And not necessarily in commercials: Think of the movies (such as the upcoming Thor) in which brands will not only be prominently featured -- but Thor will subsequently be cross-promoted in the advertising of those brands. Commercials and product placements are becoming a more regular (if deceptively placed) entity within the body of TV series.
We are awash in this sort of brain incursion on a daily/hourly/minute-by-minute basis. So in telling that story, he shows how you go about marketing your brand -- in this case, the Morgan Spurlock brand. He is examined by brand-identity specialists, then goes forth to sell himself and his idea for a movie to corporate sponsors, who will underwrite the cost of the film in exchange for a product placement in the film. This kind of cross-pollination is meant to build media and social-network mentions of the film en route to creating a groundswell audience.
It also becomes a kind of visual motif: Spurlock will illustrate a point about how we perceive media or new brands -- and with each new example, he'll incorporate the logos or merchandise (with brand-name visible) of the various companies he's signed for this movie into his illustration.
Is there anywhere in the world that's free from this kind of commercial intrusion? Spurlock does find one: Sao Paolo, Brazil, a metropolis that has banned all public commercial advertising of any kind. There are no billboards, no posters, no ads of any kind. It's a startling, eye-opening vision of a world in which our landscape isn't painted with advertising dollars.
In the recent (and probably little-seen) documentary about comedian Bill Hicks, there's a moment from one of his concerts where he addresses the audience, asking whether there's anyone there who works in advertising or marketing, then instructs them, "Kill yourself. You embody everything that is evil in the world."
Spurlock is a little gentler than that in his approach. His film concludes, ultimately, that our civilization has long since given itself over to magpie syndrome, focusing on the next shiny bauble that catches its eye, even if it's eating our brains in the process. If The Greatest Movie Ever Sold lives up to its title, is it ironic -- or not?