Whatever happened to 1990s irony, when artists and designers co-opted tired advertising trademarks and spun them into tongue-in-cheek messages with flair and subversion?
Apparently nothing resulted from this. We're back to square one and just as gullible as ever, if the marketing and product-placement people are to be believed in the new documentary POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
Director Morgan Spurlock takes us, with a perma-grin on his face, deep into the marketing world, where corporate executives still believe we don't see every product placement with disdain.
Maybe they're right. Spurlock's message, through all the fake ads sprinkled throughout the documentary and all his wisecracks, is that we've become utterly numbed by the ads and branding on our every sightline during our waking hours.
Exploring the awfulness of the awful was Spurlock's tactic in his 2004 hit Super Size Me, in which he threw himself into a fast-food diet with obvious, ill-making consequences. Now with POM Wonderful presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (a title that so easily trips off the tongue), Spurlock wades into the world of marketing with, yes, more ill-making consequences.
Ralph Nader, who is included in the film as one of the official voices of reason, succinctly sums up the theme: The only way to escape the relentless advertising in contemporary society is to close your eyes and go to sleep.
Spurlock goes out to prove this point by contacting ad agencies, marketers and company executives and pitching them on the idea of sponsoring the documentary. Spurlock's sales pitches and presentations to executives - along with conversations with cultural observers like Nader - constitute the whole movie. Of course, the ad people come off as conniving or befuddled, while the social commentators predictably appear saner, if ineffectual.
In one scene, the ad executives at the Ban underarm deodorant company are treated by Spurlock as fair game, with little editing tricks and camera angles making them look less than sharp-witted. But is that fair? The executives of the juice-maker POM Wonderful are treated a little better and given more screen time since, after all, they bought the naming rights to the entire film. Still, it's easy to imagine Spurlock's snickers once the camera was turned off and the director was in the editing room.
The problem is that the film, despite an attempt to examine the intellectual pollution of pervasive marketing, can't help coming off as one big smirk. Spurlock's delight in using product placements and other trappings of marketing in his own documentary can be as shallow as the marketing he's ridiculing. Ads are everywhere, we get it. We've been getting that for decades.
There is a lot that the film skirts around. There were the months of fruitless cold calling, in which Spurlock must have wondered if he had a workable idea at all. There was the complicated legal haggling with the companies sponsoring the film, which we see only in brief scenes where Spurlock anguishes, reality-TV style, over whether he has lost control of his own documentary. And there were the confrontations he had with marketing execs who wanted nothing to do with the film. All are treated in passing.
Far truer would have been a making-of documentary about this making-of documentary.
POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold
- Directed by Morgan Spurlock
- Written by Morgan Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick
- Classification: PG