The documentary filmmaker enters the corporate world of brand management in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Published: May 11, 2011
The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
Directed by Morgan Spurlock
Read review by Bret McCabe
Morgan Spurlock’s sneaky gift as a filmmaker is how much fun he appears to be having as he burrows into a subject, situation, or facet of everyday existence that might, at first blush, prompt a more knee-jerk reaction. His attitude is what made Super Size Me more cautionary adventure than scared-straight dietary manifesto. His reality series 30 Days delivered an insightful and often witty immersion in an everyday America that rarely gets seen on the small screen. It’s a quality that makes him a playful curveball of a polemicist.
And that mix of the impish and the intelligent makes Spurlock an engaging guide through the topsy-turvy world of contemporary advertising, product placement, and overall brand management in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. A documentary about contemporary entertainment advertising—paid for entirely by product placement—Greatest delivers an occasionally sobering look at just how much of America’s visual landscape is littered by imagery trying to sell you something. City Paper caught up with Spurlock by phone to talk about the buying in instead of selling out, the biological science of selling, and the overall brilliance that is Mane ‘n Tail shampoo.
City Paper: So, how long now has your life been focused on the selling of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold?
Morgan Spurlock: I feel like I’ve been selling this movie from day one. I feel like I’ve been selling this movie since January 2009. So that’s been 20-something months at this point.
CP: Is it exhausting?
MS: It’s a really amazing process, this whole film. You’re selling the idea, then you’re selling the movie, then you’re marketing the movie and still selling the idea of the movie in the press. It’s one of those things where you realize, Thank goodness we stopped shooting. People keep saying, “Is this going to be on the DVD?” And I’m like, “Absolutely not.” Because at some point I’d just go crazy, because it’s a layer upon a layer upon a layer upon a layer of marketing and advertising. We literally came into a movie from the beginning also pitching part of what the marketing would be and how the film would come out and how it would be released. So for me, not only are we creating a film, but we’re creating a marketing campaign around a film, which was the first time I’ve ever done anything on that level, which is fascinating.
CP: I was going to ask if this aspect of filmmaking was ever something you had to deal with before. Why did you want to explore it?
MS: The film kind of arose out of a couple of different conversations that we had. One being about the pervasiveness of advertising and marketing, how it’s just gotten to the point where there is just a complete lack of private space, of me time—whether you’re in a cab or in a bus or in an elevator or at a gas pump. In a bathroom—it used to be I’d be able to go to the bathroom and that was me time, private time with nobody advertising to me. And now it seems everywhere you go there’s advertising in restrooms.
And then with the rise of product placement you see in film and television, you’re watching shows, you’re watching movies, and it starts to feel like a commercial break right in the middle of it—with dialogue written where they’re talking about the product. So I said, well, let’s use this whole idea of product placement as a jumping off point to a larger conversation about this world of advertising and marketing. And look at what they just announced yesterday—the new [James] Bond film . . . a third of that entire movie is going to be paid for by sponsorship, which is remarkable. Fifty million dollars out of $150 million is people who are going to pay to put their products in the new Bond movie. It’s crazy.
CP: I have to admit I often find the subtle and not too subtle language decisions used by advertising and marketing to be quite impressive. Like your tagline, “He’s not selling out, he’s buying in”—it reflects how changes in the what and how things are called and explained try to alter perceptions. Was it pretty easy to acclimate to talking the talk?
MS: Well, I think you’ve got to get your hustle on. When you really start getting into this world, you’ve got to get your hustle on and you need to understand real brand-speak and know how to communicate to them and understand their language. We really started to get into this whole world of understanding what my whole brand personality, is to how we communicate that brand to companies, how we communicate what they call the cost-benefit to them—what is the upside for them? And really understanding that whole world of what your return on investment is from a brand point of view is something that I’ve never had to deal with.
CP: What are some aspects of this branding/product-placement process that really surprised you? For instance, I like to think of myself as a pretty sophisticated consumer of media and feel like I can recognize when something is trying to sell me something or manipulate me. But your visit with Martin Lindstrom’s Buyology—again, another great wordplay—your brain showed moments where advertising imagery was achieving its goal. I have to say that scares the living shit out of me.
MS: Me too, because here is this process where they’re focusing on your subconscious. So you don’t even know that you’re reacting this way. You don’t even know that it’s affecting you. So what they’re doing now is re-editing commercials based upon this data. They just showed it to me, and what they usually do is show those commercials to hundreds of people so they can get an average of the reactions—the majority of the people reacted this way to this part of the commercial. So they re-edit the commercial so that it’s filled with those areas that have the highest reactions, to what people are the most responsive to. So what that does is it creates a really visceral response in the people who watch it, so it’s very much like precog advertising. They can create advertising and marketing and sell you products you want to buy before you even know you want them or want to buy them. It’s so scary.
CP: So, the actual pitching of potential clients. Did you start fairly certain you’d be able to get people on board?
MS: We thought we’d get somebody. We didn’t know. We all liked the idea. I just thought it was a smart way to get into this world. And the fact that we were going make this movie and pull back the curtain and get them to pay for it, I thought, “There’s something really good here.” But then the more people we called, the more people who said no. Every advertising agency walked away from this movie, they wanted nothing to do with it—with the exception of one. Only one advertising agency out of every advertising agency in New York, L.A., San Francisco, Colorado, Chicago, would even touch this movie, which is remarkable. Not one product-placement company would deal with it. They wanted nothing to do with it—and only two people would go on camera and do an interview with us.
So when we started to call the brands ourselves—and I called hundreds and hundreds of brands—over 600 companies, and we’re getting no after no after no. The only thing that kept me even believing that we had a chance with this idea is that for every head of an agency that said no, all the people who worked for them, who were pushing us up to talk to that guy, would get back on the phone afterward and be like, “Man, I’m really sorry, but listen—I’ll do anything I can to help you that won’t get me fired.” So the fact that people were like, “You have to make this movie” made us think that somebody was going to do this. We’re going to find someone.
CP: Because when watching the movie, I was actually a little surprised people were willing to go along for the ride. Nothing against you, it’s just during the economic climate of the late 2000s, I just never felt corporations would be that willing to take chances—like Sheetz.
MS: Unheard of. And the fact that those guys had the balls enough to step up—and not just them. Hyatt, JetBlue, giant corporations said yes. It’s pretty amazing. I applaud those guys for being brave enough to step up—because ultimately it makes them look very savvy. It makes them look very smart. It makes them look like very smart marketers.
CP: It makes them look like they have nothing to hide.
MS: Yeah. And now, thanks to Sheetz, you can actually go to sheetz.com and buy yourself collector cups of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold—the first time ever—a documentary with collector cups. Amazing.
CP: So, given how it turned out and that you had final cut, was everybody OK with it? I mean, should we be expecting the sequel called The Greatest Movie Ever Sued?
MS: The Greatest Movie Ever Sued—that’s fantastic. I gotta write that down immediately.
No, everybody saw the film. All the brands have seen the film. All the brands are very happy. And even though I’m sure some of them would have loved for it to have been cut differently or been said differently in the film, ultimately they all signed onto it. And even though some of them may have been after certain things, in the end they all come out looking great because they were willing to take that risk, they were willing to take the chance. And I think people will go buy Ban deodorant as a result, people will buy Merrill shoes, you’ll definitely buy Mane ‘n Tail shampoo.
CP: Mane ‘n Tail—I’m just happy that product exists. At the end of the movie I see they didn’t pay to be in it. What happened there?
MS: They don’t ever pay to be put in movies, and they wanted it made very clear that they don’t pay to be in films. So that’s why I put the card up at the end—because their contract was the only one that said it needs to be made 100 percent clear that we did not pay one dime to be in this movie. So when we were finished, I watched the film and I said, “I don’t know if it’s clear that they didn’t pay. Why don’t we put a card at the end?”
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