July 21st, 2011
Can we ever escape product placement?
Though the decline in newspaper revenues might make you think otherwise, we are living through an unprecedented revolution in advertising—a Golden Age for the marketing industry that makes the glory days of Mad Men look small time. But does that revolution come with a downside? Yes, says documentarian Morgan Spurlock in his recent film “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.” Using that patented brand of gonzo filmmaking he honed in his first documentary, “Supersize Me,” Spurlock takes on on the taboo subjects of product placement, consumerism and subliminal advertising—ubiquitous forces that may be difficult to detect, but that are increasingly shaping our world.
In Spurlock’s wild ride down the corporate rabbit hole, he manages to achieve that rare mix of tragicomedy and hard-nosed reporting that often defines the best docu-journalism. He discussed his new film in an interview with me on my KKZN-AM760 radio show. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation—you can podcast the full interview here.
Before we get to exactly what we find in your movie, I’ve got a personal question for you: How did you go from “Supersize Me,” a movie abut the dangers of our existing food economy, to “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” about product placement? Is there a natural link here, or was it something else?
Well I think there was [a natural connection]. In between “Supersize Me” and “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” we did three seasons of our TV show “30 Days,” [and] we did “Where in the world is Osama bin Laden?” And along the way there was a path of continuing to explore very important societal and pop culture questions, which ultimately ended up with us coming to this world of advertising and marketing. Today it seems like you can’t walk out of your house without somebody trying to sell you something.
For example, I used to go to the bathroom and that used to be “me time.” You know, I used to have a little quiet time for me. And now there seems like there video monitors or billboards inside all these restrooms. And I was like, that sacred space is gone. Everything is for sale, and I think that’s ultimately what this film explores.
Is that something that’s different now than it had been in the past? Hasn’t the American way been one of entrepreneurship, and selling—and has this changed?
I think it has completely. What we’ve done now is we’ve continued to give over this influence to corporate interests. One of the things that we talk about in the film is how school districts—as they continue to get their budgets cut and continue to have money taken away from them—are letting in advertising [to make ends meet]. So whether it’s on buses or in schools or banners at the football stadium or inside gymnasiums or being piped into the televisions on Channel 1, or naming rights to certain venues—this is happening. This door is opening and getting wider and wider every day. And I think that the one place where we should be able to have that sacred space still is an educational institution—especially elementary schools, junior highs and high schools.
It’s interesting that you bring this up because there was recently a debate in the Colorado legislature over whether to raise private funds to do renovations on the State Capitol, and one of the ideas floated was to let the corporate underwriters of those repairs put banners on the dome of the State Capitol.
[Laughs] Greatest government money could buy, right there.
Exactly. So, then the question become what to do about this. What can be done about this in a nation that prides itself on its First Amendment?
I’m all for the First Amendment. I’m also a business owner, so I understand the value of the free enterprise system. You know I think there has to be a way where you start to help these places—especially places like school districts—meet their budget gaps. You know the bigger problem in our country, as we continue to look to these corporate interests who are going to be funneling the money [into these institutions], is that we’ve shipped all of our industry away. So there’s no [public] money coming in… I feel like there have to be some real generational questions that we ask about what is this new economy that we have to generate new income from.