Morgan Spurlock’s latest documentary, POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, hit Australian cinemas on Monday. I had the pleasure of speaking with the man. The long and short? It isn’t your fault, dear marketer, it’s society’s. Oh, and agencies are unnecessary intermediaries between you and creativity.

Sean Greaney: I watched your film, and it was fascinating to see that our world is now so recognised a part of the mainstream that, for someone like you, it’s a viable topic for a film. What inspired you to make the film?

Morgan Spurlock: Ultimately the idea for the film came out of a couple of things: one was just like the pervasiveness of advertising, like the fact that you can’t go anywhere without feeling like somebody is trying to sell you something, whether you’re in a car or in a bus, even in the rest room in front of a urinal; there is ads everywhere now. Then bleeding that into entertainment, whether it’s film or television, there was an episode of Heroes I saw where Hayden Panettiere, the cheerleader, moved into a new town. I loved this show when it first came out. So, she’s coming out of school and her dad is like, “Honey, I’m sorry you’re so upset. Your mum and I, we were going to save this for your birthday but here you go.” So, he reaches in his pocket and as he does, the camera cuts to the front of a car and there’s some logo on the front of this car, and it cuts back to him holding the keys in front of her face, and it focuses to her face, and she’s like, “The Rogue, the Nissan Rogue. Oh my gosh, Dad, I can’t believe you’re giving me the Rogue. It’s the Rogue.” And it’s like that was just like right in the middle of that show. There was a commercial right in the middle of this program. And so for me, the more we talked about it the more I said there’s a really fun movie here, especially if we can get brands to pay for it.

SG: You bring up that episode of Heroes. Do you think endorsement can actually be part of a film and not corrupt it?

MS: I think the minute you get involved with a brand on any level, any corporation, it’s not a 30, 40, 50 percent chance, it’s a 100 percent chance that they will somehow infect the movie, whether it’s something that you have to say or some place you have to go, or something you can or can’t do, like things you can’t talk about, I think they will have an influence over it. With this film, it works 100 percent because it’s totally fine. They didn’t have any control over the content. And when you see the film become corrupted, it completely works because that’s what the film is about; the film is ultimately about the corruption of entertainment at the end of the day, and the mass influence of marketing and advertising. For this, it works. For other things it definitely does not.

SG:Who do you think the onus is on then? Is it the marketers’ fault, or is it the artists’ fault, or is it society’s fault?

MS: Ultimately, at the end of the day, that’s a great question. I think it falls more on us, I think it falls much more on society because marketers are there to market a product to get you to buy X. Artists’ jobs are to get their movies, music seen and heard by as many people as possible, as many as they can, and ultimately we have just been kind of complicit in letting things go in this direction. One of the biggest reasons this continues to happen is that we are wired to not want to pay for things; you’re wired to want to get as much as you can, it’s feast or famine… Anytime somebody can offer you something for less, you’re going to take it; that’s why the Walmarts, the Tescos of the world are so successful.

SG: So the best way for a general person to fight back is to start paying full price?

MS: Yeah… I think that’s the best way to fight back, but no one will do that, or few people will do that, because you’re like well, why would I want to do that?

SG: In the film, you’re warned that this may corporatise you. Did the film change you? Did it corporatise Morgan Spurlock?

MS: I think that the film, in the context of this film, absolutely, because it enabled us to kind of make the movie and – me being corporatised in this film works 100 percent. Am I going to go and start using brands to pay for all the other movies I do? Most likely not, probably not. But what this film does set up is kind of a shifting paradigm that’s starting to happen; do I think, or do I want 30 second commercials to suddenly start running in some of the movies I go see? Absolutely not. I don’t ever want that to happen, ever. But I think that there is a real opportunity for independent films. It’s much different for a fiction film than a documentary film. I think there is a real opportunity now for no budget, low budget, independent film makers to try and actually get movies made by somebody giving you money to have that character drive a Nissan truck. I love what JJ said in the movie; he said, “I believe in storytelling, not story selling. We live in a world where people drive Camaros, and people wear Levis jeans, and they drink Coca Cola. I’m much more distracted in movies. When I see somebody drinking something that says beer, like a white can with nothing on it than somebody actually drinking a real product.” It’s when that stuff is shoved in my face in the middle of a narrative that it suddenly feels like the middle of a commercial, that I’m more offended by it.

SG: So you think the solution for marketers who are perceiving the effectiveness of the 30-second commercial diminish is simply to soft well within a film, product placement?

MS: It’s already happening. It’s not a solution because it’s already happening. You’re saying like it doesn’t happen now, which it’s already going on 100 percent across the board. The new James Bond movie, a third of that movie is going to be paid for by product placement, $50 million dollars out of 150. That’s huge. So, I think the people already see that there is real value in this. There is the notion of a passive endorsement, that by getting Brad Pitt to hold this soda or wear that jacket or those sunglasses, I’m getting one of the biggest stars in the world to somehow passively sign on to liking my product. You’re getting that endorsement from him, even though he’s not saying, “I officially endorse this product.” That’s really big business, and there is a lot of influence that comes from that, and it’s only going to continue to grow and get bigger and get worse.

SG: What was your opinion of marketers as people before you began the film and then after you had this experience?

MS: I think you see us meet with some of them in the film. I think that most people will agree that the advertising business is pretty slimy, there is a real question of necessity. What you see in the film with what we did is I think the film shows that there is not a lot of need for advertising or advertisers. I think that creative people like filmmakers, people like that, could become an intermediary, and you could cut out that intermediary like an agency. I spoke about this in my TED talk last Spring, I ultimately don’t think ad agencies have these companies’ best interests in mind; these ad agencies are ultimately self serving for themselves. So, if you’re a filmmaker and you’re an artist, and there’s a way for you to still tell what you want to tell, knowing that it’s somehow going to come in and infect your story somehow, but it’s still your story, then why wouldn’t you want to take their money?

SG: In the end, you did retain the final edit of the film. What kind of requests did you receive from the sponsors, despite having that final edit in the contract?

MS: At the end of the day, we called over 600 companies to take part in this film, of which 15 said yes going into Sundance. So, I think what it makes, it makes these companies look incredibly smart, and it makes them look very savvy, and I think that it shows that the companies who are willing to take a chance and take a risk can ultimately benefit in the long run

SG: But what kind of requests are they putting forward at the last minute to change the film or the direction of the film? 

MS: Nobody. Everybody saw the film at Sundance, and nobody requested anything to be changed.

SG: That’s fantastic.

MS: They knew what they were signing onto. Nobody saw the film before Sundance, and I said we’re going to make a film that’s going to be honest and transparent, and you’re buying into that from day one. So, I think that was, for me, probably the most exciting thing.

SG: Of the 585 other companies you approached, what was the overwhelming reason to not come on board? Was it Morgan Spurlock, or was it the lack of creative control?

MS: I think it was both. There were a lot of people who would get on the phone and say, “Listen, I already saw what you did to that other company. Why would I ever get into business with you?” And then there were people who wanted to have control literally down to the line and being there on shoot days of every single thing that happened around their brand or their product, to which we were like, ‘No, this is not how this is going to work.’ So, for me, I think that it was a combination of both of those things.

SG: Did you actually approach McDonalds?

MS: Of course. If you’re going to make a blockbuster, you’ve got to have a Happy Meal, and of course they didn’t want to take part. In fact, we have a great relationship. I call them, they never call me back. That’s kind of how it works. I called them over and over and over again, left them countless messages, and I thought at some point they would call back, but no, they never called back once.

SG: Will things ever go back to the way they were in the world of art and entertainment?

MS: I think that there are still movies and still people who have avoided this, [people who say] ‘This is the kind of artist I’m going to be, I’m going to shy away from any of these types of things.’ But if you look at the music business – you use this as a perfect example – it’s impossible for artists to make a living now just off digital downloads and selling an album; you have to be a road dog, you have to get out. And one of the ways to get this mass audience is to let them use your music in commercials, where now, thanks to Shazam – I’ve seen kids out at bars with a commercial playing on television, hold out their phone, point it to the TV, and then look at it to tell them who the artist is, what the album is and gives them the chance to buy that record right there. It’s such a changing world, and the stigma of selling out and the stigma of giving into the man is not what it used to be.

Sean Greaney
BY Sean Greaney ON 19 August 2011
Managing editor, Marketing magazine & Marketingmag.com.au