In 2004, shortly after seeing Morgan Spurlock's first film, Supersize Me, his cinematic experiment eating nothing but McDonald's three meals a day for 30 days, I headed off to New Orleans to the Essence Music Festival. I served as managing director for the daytime activities at the New Orleans Convention Center of the festival, the "Purpose" part of the "Party with a Purpose."
McDonald's was a major sponsor (and still is) and that year focused its activation on promoting its new healthier menu options. According to news reports at the time, McDonald's new menu had nothing to do with the film, and the company's history notes the introduction of Premium Fresh Salads to its menu in 2003. Still, I imagine not even company spokespeople could deny the synchronistic timing.
The vague trepidation I felt heading off to the 2004 Festival, wondering what impact the film might have for the Festival and its sponsor – would people rally? would festivalgoers protest? would there be a firestorm of media condemnation? – returned for me Thursday night when I went to see Spurlock's newest film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. What would Spurlock say about marketing and sponsorship, the fields I'm in? What impact would it have?
In both cases, my trepidation was unfounded. No one protested McDonald's or the Essence Music Festival, and whether the film had any influence or not on McDonald's menu, who cares? The film raised excellent points; McDonald's has evolved its menu; and we each, as individuals, still must take responsibility for our own eating and nutritional information-gathering habits.
The new film is hilarious. Every industry has absurdities about it, and marketing is right up there. Spurlock pokes fun at it all – including at himself. POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is the story of Spurlock's attempts to secure sponsors for the film while bringing us a glimpse behind the scenes of the sophistication of modern day marketing and uncovering the dark side.
What a different film this would have been in the hands of another filmmaker, like Michael Moore, for example. Consistent with his own branding profile, Spurlock is equal parts "mindful" and "playful" about the story and issues, right down to the musical score. Sergei Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, about the hunter and the hunted, couldn't be a more perfect composition. Take a look at the trailer.
The film takes us through the whole process of sponsorship development, though in this case in the form of "brand integration," modern lingo for product placement, a tactic used by major brands to have their products embedded into the storylines of films and television shows. (Seinfeld was a master at this. Can you name all the brands, from Rice Krispies to Junior Mints, woven into the storylines? Sometimes the scripts read just like the press releases, making it even funnier.)
Throughout the sponsorship sales and execution process, Spurlock shares with us, the viewers, and his advisors his concerns, especially where to draw the line between selling out and not. Of course Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader portend a dreadful future of Corporatized Morgan Spurlock, imploring him to rise above. With a mischievous sparkle in his eyes, Spurlock counters by hawking his sponsored shoes, Merrell's, to Nader. (Film tip: don't leave before the credits end for a great interaction with Nader.)
Spurlock keeps it light and defines the line quite clearly for his own work. In a post-screening discussion on Thursday, the closing film for Philadelphia's Cinefest, Spurlock said he pushed back on sponsor requests to approve the film before it opened and to see a financial return.
"Being in the film" was the sponsors' return, he said. Exactly!
Overall, I found the film thoroughly enjoyable, laugh-out-loud funny, with plenty to learn for both sponsorship buyers and sellers, as well as life-long students of marketing. It opens next weekend, and I urge you to see it.
I will say, however, that one critique I have is also where Spurlock did sell out. Or rather, enabled someone else's sell out. One of the more serious threads in the film is about marketing messages in places where maybe they don't belong – public schools.
"Schools should be sacred," a Broward County school representative says, while she discusses with Spurlock the challenges of balancing a decreasing budget with demands for new programs. Banner advertising on the school fence line and truck fleet and in school buses is one solution. By the end of the film, POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold joins the ranks of the district's advertisers by purchasing all three vehicles.
(It also bought the naming rights to the city of Altoona, Pa., home to another sponsor, Sheetz. The filmmakers reportedly purchased the rights for $25,000, and for 60 days, a drive through Pennsylvania, 130 miles west of Harrisburg and about 40 miles southwest of State College, will take you to POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Pa. As the New York Times reports: “Clearly, the people of Altoona have a sense of humor,” Bill Schirf, the mayor, said in a statement, “and an asking price.”)
Apparently Google doesn't know about Altoona's temporary name change; as of this writing, you can still find Altoona.
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By advertising through the school's banner and bus billboard program, the filmmakers stepped on those sacred grounds at the same time they exposed the problem. Wouldn't it have been better for the film to simply have made a contribution to the school system, even an anonymous one? Or developed a cause marketing campaign?
Perhaps this seems like a minor infraction in an overall enjoyable film, but a donation or cause marketing campaign would have been more aligned with the point of the film's social side.
POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold opens next weekend. Go see it, have fun, and feel free to share your thoughts by clicking on "comments" below to let me know what you think!
[In honor of transparency: I paid full price for movie tickets for my friend and me, and I own several pairs of Merrell's that I paid for on my own. I have drunk POM Wonderful I paid for, eaten foods from Amy's I bought, have been in the airport on Aruba enroute to Granada on business, never worn Ban (that I'm aware of), don't own Carrera's, never shopped at Solstice, never heard of Get It for Free Online till now, have paid for my own rooms at Hyatt, don't live in a city served by jetBlue, never purchased a KDF car wrap, never purchased Mane 'n Tail (nor do I have a kid or Shetland pony to try it on), have purchased a few items at Old Navy, have never shopped at Petland, have purchased my own Seventh Generation products, have purchased my own gas and snacks at Sheetz, own no clothing by Ted Baker, may have dabbed at teenage blemishes with Thayer's Witch Hazel purchased by my mother, and was not influenced by any of these film sponsors while writing this blog. I did just enjoy mentioning them all however!]