Morgan Spurlock: Why I Sold Out

Last Updated Apr 25, 2011 11:44 AM EDT

Morgan Spurlock is known for producing satirical documentaries that go after familiar targets, whether that's McDonald's (Supersize Me) or the CIA's failure to capture Osama Bin Laden (Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?) His latest film, opening tomorrow, fits into that mold, aiming at the advertising industry's use of product placement.

The conceit behind The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is that Spurlock created a movie about product placement by actually soliciting product placements and filming his efforts to convince advertisers. In the end, 500 companies turned him down, but 17 said yes, forking over $1.5 million to be part of Spurlock's high-concept documentary in which he interviews ad critics, like Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky, along side the executives at brands like Pom Wonderful, the pomegranate juice company that is a main sponsor of the movie.

Is Spurlock trying to show how the dozens of products embedded in Iron Man 2 is somehow debasing American culture? Or, is he actually a shrewd pitchman, pretending to moralize about a practice that he is also profiting from? (Before the film's release, he made headlines by auctioning off the naming rights to his TED talk, finding a sponsor for $7,100. He donated it to charity.)

Spurlock showed up to an interview with BNET, sporting a black coat covered in the logos of the brands that financed his film. He responded good-naturedly, even when asked about charges that he skirted ethical lines.

Where did the idea for this movie come from?
My producer and I were talking about all these blockbusters like Iron Man that had these product placements. And we wondered if a documentary that had those same partnerships and co-promotion could be a blockbuster? Could we have a 'doc-buster'? I wanted to create a film that shows how product placement actually works, all the conversations that happen every day behind closed doors. You know, how the sausage gets made.

So what did you learn from the making of the movie? What do you want viewers to learn?
The biggest thing is a hyperawareness of advertising. Suddenly, you will see how advertising is all around us; we're being marketed and advertised to every day of our lives. Product placement becomes transparent. I guarantee you will never watch a movie or TV show again the same way. It will be ruined forever!

But in a world where people talk about personal branding, does anyone really care about product placement? Is that really so shocking?
Do people really talk about branding themselves?Who talks about that?

Tom Peters coined the phrase more than ten years ago in an article for Fast Company.
Who is Tom Peters? Does he work in advertising?

Your movie also has some spots in which you appear flogging your sponsors' products, including Pom Wonderful. As you know, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint against Pom Wonderful, alleging false claims about the health benefits of its juice. Why didn't you mention that in your film?
That was filed after we had finished shooting. We were editing the movie.

You could have added a mention of the FTC complaint.
We discussed it, definitely, but the only way would have been to add a card at the end of the film. We felt that would have come out of nowhere. It was better to have reporters like yourself ask questions. Did Pom Wonderful agree to get involved in this because they knew the FTC complaint was coming? I don't know. It's a good question. Why don't you ask (the company)?

One of the most powerful segments in the movie is where you visit a school that sells large banners to local advertisers. Some schools are actually selling ads on buses.
Making this movie made me ask, 'Where do we draw the line?' Do we want to live in a world where everything is the Mets' Citi Field, where we're selling off the names to parks, to absolutely anything and everything? I visited Sao Paolo, where there is no outdoor advertising. That was just amazing. That would never happen here, especially not in New York, but we have to get a better approach to advertising so that it is not so invasive.

So do you think your film is going to become a 'doc-buster'?
The film hasn't opened yet, but it already has more than 900 million impressions.

What's an impression mean?
I don't know. I don't speak in those terms. That's an advertising term. You'll have to ask them what that means.

Pam Kruger is a senior editor at BNET who considers Super Size Me one of the best documentaries she's ever seen. Watch the preview of The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and tell me what you think.