BOB GARFIELD: We're all accustomed to product placement in TV shows and movies. Sometimes it’s obvious and clumsy, sometimes seamless and smooth and sometimes it actually adds to the verisimilitude of a scene. But nowadays, as filmmaker Morgan Spurlock documents in his new movie, product placement is just the beginning. It’s all about co-promotion, corporate speak for when a movie partners with a bunch of brands to flood the world with messages about both the product and the new film. For example, everywhere you look, there’s Shrek flogging a Royal Caribbean Cruise or Iron Man selling Diet Dr. Pepper. In his film, Spurlock decided to test a premise.
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MORGAN SPURLOCK: But do all these co-promotions actually work? Do they have that much influence over the choices we make? Does Shrek make me want to take a Royal Caribbean Cruise or Burger King make me want to go see Twilight? Is the only thing missing from my movie achieving Iron Man status a little co-promotion? Well, if that’s true, then I can't wait to get some of that sweet Hollywood ad money.
BOB GARFIELD: And he did. He made an expose about product placement and co-promotion, financed entirely by product placement and co-promotion. He approached 600 brands, and in the end convinced 22 of them to fund his film, called Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold. In the process, he confronted the many compromises filmmakers must make to get at that sweet Hollywood ad money. Full disclosure: I was actually in this film for like six seconds. Sadly, no money changed hands. Morgan, welcome to the show.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Probably the greatest six seconds I've ever seen on film.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. This movie is so meta. You've constructed like all these not quite opposing mirrors. And it’s hard to know where you stand in all of it, because on the one hand you’re -
MORGAN SPURLOCK: On one hand I'm, I'm critiquing. On the other hand, I'm taking the money.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, I'm getting to that. I'm just trying to think of a word. Uh -
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Whore. Uh -
BOB GARFIELD: You did keep the money, right?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Of course. We made the money with their money. And over the course of the film you see everything that we're critiquing at the beginning are all the same tools that we start to implement and institute at the end to promote the movie and get it out into the public. So hopefully that, you know, that full circle kind of, of satire isn't lost when people see it and they see that all the mechanisms are what actually got them into the theater to begin with.
BOB GARFIELD: Was there any business that you just refused to do?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: I tried everyone. I called gun manufacturers. You know, I wanted to get the greatest rifle you'll ever use. No gun companies would come on board. We called [LAUGHS] cigarette companies. I wanted to have a real ethical conversation of, you know, there are companies that you shouldn't have sponsoring your projects. I even called BP. Like I called [LAUGHS] BP and I said, you know, you guys, you could be the official gas sponsor. I promise we won't say “the greatest oil ever spilled.” We'll say something else. They didn't want to play along. [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: They know who you are. They know that there’s a high percentage possibility that one way or another they're going to be the butt of a joke.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Their products won't be the butt of the joke.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah. I mean, there’s this one scene in which you have the brand stewards of Ban deodorant in a room. You ask them, you know, what does their product stand for? And this was, this is what it sounded like.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: What are the words that you would use to describe Ban? Ban is – blank.
WOMAN: [WHISPERING] Oh, that’s a great question. Ah.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: I actually got a tweet from someone yesterday who said, I was walking through the pharmacy in my hometown and saw Ban deodorant. Hadn't thought of it in years since I saw your movie, so I bought some. So [LAUGHS] there it is. The power of product placement worked -
BOB GARFIELD: Wow.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: - even out of this documentary.
BOB GARFIELD: One of the celebrities who shows up in your movie is Ralph Nader -
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: - who’s celebrated principally for being a consumer advocate, in addition to being a presidential candidate -
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - who’s made a career of calling the society’s attention to the difference between an advertising promise and reality. And he cheerfully plays along. He even accepts a free pair of shoes?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Yes, he does. [LAUGHS]
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Oh, absolutely. And this is a fantastic shoe.
RALPH NADER: What is it?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: This is a, this is a Merrell.
RALPH NADER: Merrell?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Merrell’s, yeah.
RALPH NADER: Is it new?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: It’s - they've been out a few years.
RALPH NADER: Mm-hmm.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Like I've had a pair of these before, and so we called them, 'cause -
RALPH NADER: Right.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: - actually I'm a fan.
RALPH NADER: Yeah.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Yeah.
RALPH NADER: How’s the arch support?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: It’s great.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Well, I gave him a pair of slip-on Merrell’s first, and then when I [LAUGHS], when I went to a screening in D.C. and saw him, he comes down. You know, we're doing the Q&A together, and he goes, what, you couldn't send me a pair of shoes with laces? [LAUGHING] And so, I said, on it. You know, [LAUGHS] don't worry. So the next day I made sure he got a pair of shoes with laces.
BOB GARFIELD: Wow.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: You heard it here first. [LAUGHS] We've talked about the commercial products that were on board. One of your partners was a school district -
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - in Florida. Tell me about them.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Yeah, you know, we, we started doing a lot of research into school districts across the country now that are, that are cash-strapped, that are trying to, you know, bridge budget gaps as they continue to have money taken away by their, by their states and local municipalities. And, you know, we said, we should go talk to one of these schools, you know, the, one of these districts that now is letting advertising in. You know, and they're, they're advertising now on school buses, you know, in gymnasiums. They're selling naming rights to – whether it be stadiums or gymnasiums or other rooms within facilities. Broward County was one of those. And this is only one district in countless states where this is happening. You know, there’s dozens of states that are doing the same thing right now.
BOB GARFIELD: You could have portrayed this as a poignant situation, or repulsive. You decided not to take these people down.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Ultimately we wanted to advertise in the school district. We could make a larger point by putting our ads on the buses and on the mail trucks and, and on the fences and on murals in, within the school district. I mean, listen, they don't want to be taking advertising. They don't want to have, to have to deal with that. But what choice do they have? And that’s, that’s their point of view is, like, well, what are we supposed to do? There’s a great interview with a classroom, you know, as we go to talk to these school districts, and this one girl says something I think is so fantastic, which is, we have enough advertising in the world. Do I really need to go to Red Bull High? [LAUGHS] And, you know, [BOB LAUGHS] the way I look at it is, yeah, it [LAUGHS] won't be long till I'm taking my five-year-old, you know, dropping him off for his first day of high school at Red Bull High.
BOB GARFIELD: Throughout the whole movie you are cheerfully trying to forge partnerships to build these brands and to build your film.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: There must have been points when you just wanted to actually jump out and start lecturing either the people you were in the room with or the audience about just how phenomenally sleazy this can be.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Yeah. You start to feel dirty when you’re going into the rooms and you’re, you’re so beholden to them at that point because, you know, you need their money and you need these things to finish the film. So there is like that – that’s where the dark side does start to creep in, as you start having to kind of play the game. You know, you can't think that there’s not going to be a compromise once you start working with these companies or taking their money or their products, and you have to find that middle ground. And so it’s [LAUGHS] when they're expecting you to kind of literally turn every conversation you have into a, a commercial that you’re like, this is, this is ridiculous. You know, there’s no way I'm doing any of this. And, and that’s what you see happening in film and TV.
BOB GARFIELD: And what’s the best kind of shoes, if I were to, if I needed some shoes?
MORGAN SPURLOCK: I mean, if I was going to go out and get a pair of shoes, I mean, I would probably get a, I don't know, a comfortable pair of Merrell’s. You know, they are probably the greatest shoe you'll ever wear.
BOB GARFIELD: Morgan, thank you very much.
MORGAN SPURLOCK: Thanks, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Morgan Spurlock is the star and creator of Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.