The Greatest Movie Ever Sold: More Lies about Marketing

Last Updated May 30, 2011 11:48 PM EDT

Morgan Spurlock, creator of Super Size Me, introduced his documentary on product placement and other forms of marketing last Friday. Entitled "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," the movie opened to mixed reviews. (In the Huffington Post, Marshall Fine says, "I wish it was a little funnier - or more pointed..." On the other side, Kirk Honeycutt, in the Film Journal International calls it a "hilarious and sly new documentary.")

To me?

This movie is just another negative portrayal of marketing. What's new about that? From Arthur Miller's classic, "Death of A Salesman," to Oliver Stone's Wall Street, and the current TV hit Mad Men, marketers are frequently depicted as slimy, sleazy, liars. In Mr. Fine's words, it's a "movie about the insidious and invasive nature of advertising in our modern life, you expect to learn something new..."

What do viewers learn?
The overall theme of the movie is that marketing is pollution. In presenting this theme, Morgan Spurlock deceives viewers from the beginning. He says the film is about "product placement, marketing, and advertising." That's analogous to the host of a banquet telling the guests that they will be served salad, food, and dessert - a bit of a hierarchy problem (salad is food and dessert is a category of food). Marketers know that product placement and advertising are only two of zillions of methods of promotion.

And promotion is only one of what I call the Seven Building Blocks of marketing (the other six are corporate image, positioning, product, price, distribution, and the marketing information system).

If you are going to make a movie about something perhaps you should better understand what that something is. Of course, this faux pas probably won't hurt the box office because many film-goers don't really know what marketing is either. They received their marketing education from inaccurate media portrayals, such as this movie, or marketing professors that recycle outdated concepts they were taught.

Marketing is not pollution unless done incorrectly
I understand that a documentary needs to take a point of view. I don't understand why a movie, disguised as a documentary, would castigate an essential function of business that, when done correctly, informs and differentiates - giving prospects good reasons to buy one product over another. Marketing is not the culprit. Bad marketing is. You can find good and bad examples of any profession. Why deceive people by using bad examples to define Marketing?

Who decides what is good and bad?
More interestingly, it is hard for people in a free society to agree on what is good and bad. To most people, the marketing of any product they do not want (for me that is fruitcake) is "insidious and invasive." For those that really want a product, related marketing is considered informative, desired, and in many cases beautiful. Times Square in New York City, The Strip in Las Vegas, and billboards on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood have bright lights that advertise products and attract people from around the world. Visitors and residents alike view these as energizing and exciting. Many take photographs of them. Those that think otherwise can live in the wilderness and visit national parks on vacation. As Sly Stone said, "Different strokes for different folks."

What marketers can learn from this movie?
Even though I disagree with the point of view taken in this movie, I think marketers should see it. It is important to learn how too many in our society view marketing. Ironically, it gives further confirmation that marketers have done a poor job of marketing themselves. Other clues include:

  • marketing budgets are cut in recessions when they should be increased
  • the average tenure of the CMO position is only two years
  • most marketing professors are teaching the 4Ps of marketing, which do not incorporate the critically important concepts of corporate image, positioning, and marketing metrics that have become essential building blocks of marketing in 2011 and beyond.
What do you think of movies that use bad examples of any profession to define that profession?


Ira Kalb is president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California (USC). Follow him on Twitter.
image courtesy of flickr users, redeye^ and Neil Armstrong2
  • Ira Kalb

    Ira Kalb is president of Kalb & Associates, an international consulting and training firm, and professor of marketing at the Marshall School of Business at University of Southern California. He has won numerous awards for marketing and teaching, authored ten books and created marketing inventions that have made clients and students more successful. He is frequently interviewed by various media for his expertise in branding, crisis management and strategic marketing. Follow him on Twitter at @irakalb