For a documentary filmmaker, there’s almost no better way to get inspired than to get infuriated. For Morgan Spurlock, that happened one night a few years ago, when he saw a shameless bit of product placement on the television show Heroes. In the offending episode, a cheerleader played by Hayden Panettiere exits practice and finds her father, who has come to pick her up and arrived with a birthday present.
Dad reaches into his pocket, and out comes a fresh set of car keys, with a distinct logo. The camera dollys past the front of the car, and the Nissan logo comes into the frame. “Oh my gosh!” she screams. “You got me the Rogue.”
“This is a show that I so loved,” Spurlock says. “And this for me was one of the biggest death knells.”
Indeed, everywhere Spurlock turned in 2007 and 2008, he found equally unsubtle examples of turning otherwise intelligent entertainment franchises into glorified advertisements for global brands. The designer clothes-obsessed ladies of Sex and the City. The nerdy scientists in Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, from the comic series Spurlock once adored.
Spurlock’s novel conceit? To make an entire film about the advent of product placement, sponsored by the corporations appearing in it.
There was just one problem: Nobody would touch him with a 10-foot pole.
In 2004, at the age of 33, Spurlock became one of his generation’s best-known provocateurs with the release of the documentary Super Size Me, a searing rebuke of the fast-food industry. For a month straight, he ate nothing but offerings from McDonald’s and watched his fat levels and cholesterol shoot through the roof, while his libido shut down almost completely. He’d thrown up Big Macs and endured rectal exams on screen. Now, as he sought sponsors for his new project five years later, he was suffering long-term consequences to his professional health.
“We called between 500 and 600 companies,” Spurlock says, sitting in his office in downtown New York on a recent afternoon. “Every beverage company you can think of. Coke, Pepsi, RC Cola. Every shoe company. Nike, Reebok, Tretorn. Nobody wanted to take part.”
He made a run at the major fast food chains, because “you can’t make a documentary blockbuster without getting on a collector cup.” But there was nothing doing at McDonald’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell.
Even Wienerschnitzel told him to get lost. “Really?” Spurlock says, still marveling. “Wienerschnitzel? You’re so busy, Wienerschnitzel, that you don’t want to be tied into a film?”
Even In-N-Out Burger and Wienerschnitzel told him to get lost.
“Really?” Spurlock says, still marveling. “Wienerschnitzel? You’re so busy, Wienerschnitzel, that you don’t want to be tied into a film?”
Ditto Ben Sherman, Prada, Gucci, Volkswagen. The carmaker’s fax to him: “It is not in Volkswagen’s interest to be involved in this film in any way.”
But eventually, as befits an era when someone is always looking for a little publicity, Spurlock’s search began to bear fruit, and thus was born The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, opening in theaters April 22.
The first real break came when he went to see famed advertising guru Richard Kirshenbaum of Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal Partners, who loved the idea, telling Spurlock, “By selling out, you’re not selling out.”
Then came a modest endorsement in the $50,000 range from Ban Deodorant, a KBSP client.
After that, things began to take off. POM Wonderful, the burgeoning pomegranate juice empire headed by Lynda Resnick, agreed to pay $1 million, becoming the film’s chief sponsor. Then came smaller sums from Hyatt Hotels, JetBlue, Old Navy, and Sheetz, a chain of gas stations and convenience stores. (Spurlock was particularly enthusiastic about this last one for its collector cups, on which the movie’s logo could appear.)
Naturally, there were stipulations. To get POM Wonderful’s sponsorship, Spurlock had to put the brand’s logo above the title on the film’s posters and in its trailers. (As in “POM Wonderful Presents.”) Further, some of the POM money will only come to him if the film grosses more than $10 million worldwide and generates 600,000,000 media impressions. Additionally, Spurlock had to conduct a number of onscreen interviews with branding experts and consumers in the JetBlue terminal and at Sheetz locations—while pumping gas, no less. He was contracted to wear Merrell shoes, another sponsor, during many of these scenes. During his onscreen travels, he would be shown staying solely at Hyatt Hotels.
Even with such agreements in place, some of his partners were still apprehensive about how this whole meta exercise was going to turn out. Although Spurlock guaranteed each of his corporate partners that he would not “disparage” them onscreen, none had final approval of the movie. Nor did any get to watch their scenes or suggest changes.
Today, however, all seem pretty pleased. Says Resnick: “For us, it’s like we’re in on the gag. And it was fun working with Morgan. He’s clever.” Adds Amy Curtis-McIntyre, the former executive from Hyatt who signed on with Spurlock while at the hotel chain and then brought her next employer, Old Navy, to the table: “He’s using humor to explore something. It doesn’t feel like he’s cracking an evil empire.”
As Spurlock sees it, this is pretty much the ultimate compliment. “I’m a big believer that if you can make someone laugh, you can make someone listen,” he says. “I think through humor you have a much larger chance of actually getting someone to pay attention.”
Spurlock gestures over at a refrigerator emblazoned with the POM logo and filled with its signature beverage. “Want one?” he asks.
Jacob Bernstein is a senior reporter at The Daily Beast. He has also written for New York magazine, Paper, and The Huffington Post.