Hot Docs, Toronto (Gala Premiere) – With the question of Osama Bin Laden's whereabouts so topically answered, Spurlock has returned to the commercial concerns of his first, hit documentary, Super Size Me. This time around, he wants us to think about the ads, not the fries, we're so carelessly consuming. Christi Franceschini gets brand-aware.
Morgan Spurlock has produced a new documentary about brand placement and advertising entirely funded by brand placement and advertising. The viewer is afforded a glimpse into the machinations of this billion-dollar industry, demonstrating exactly how much value is placed on this form of advertising by companies and reflecting on how little information filters through to the average cinema-goer. There are appearances by the marketing teams of each brand, ad professionals like Rick Kurnit, filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino, Brett Ratner and JJ Abrams and pundits like Noam Chomsky and Ralph Nader.
In one sense, the subject matter holds few surprises. It's pretty much universally accepted that advertisers will bombard us in every conceivable way but the film's strength lies in uncovering aspects of the ad industry that we may not have considered. When a VW car appears onscreen, our first thought might not be that it's there because its manufacturers paid the producers $10,000. But chances are, that's exactly why it's driving through your favourite film. One mark of a good documentary is that it makes you re-examine the world around you and Spurlock's film does that: after watching The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, you'll never again miss another product placed in a film or a TV episode. But this increased awareness is exploited in the name of entertainment.
The film shows Spurlock shamelessly cold-calling companies (he phoned more than 500 brands) and getting plenty of rejections en route but it's in this kind of set-up that he shines. Never a documentarian with concerns over objectivity or perspective, Spurlock's modus operandi is to immerse himself, in good-natured fashion, in the world of his investigation, whether that involves poisoning himself with fast food or selling product spots.
Unlike Michael Moore, Spurlock's position is neither political nor polemical. Instead he comes at the topic as an amused observer, an interested consumer, enjoying playing the game as much as explaining the rules. He evidently relishes the role of ad executive, spinning narratives, pitching angles and plotting campaigns, going as far as to suggest that Pom highlights its Viagra-like properties to consumers. In the end, he got 23 brands to sponsor the film, showing his pitchman role was pitch-perfect. But at the same time, he addresses the lunatic science of advertising, visiting a company in Hollywood that uses MRI machines to test emotional responsiveness to movie trailers and taking part in a test.
Mid-way through the film, Spurlock takes us on a trip to Sao Paulo, Brasil, courtesy – we are told – of sponsor Jet Blue, though the airline doesn't actually fly to that destination. Spurlock stays with another sponsor, the Hyatt Hotel, which gets its own mini ad – a sweeping view of the hotel frontage, lobby and logo. Yet his visit to Sao Paolo has an anti-advertising point to make: it was like every other city until local government introduced a law to halt outdoor advertising. Now the city is free of billboards and posters and Sao Paolo officials say crime rates have dropped. They speculate that people's pride in and ownership of public spaces has increased (bringing to mind Naomi Klein's concerns over the negative effect of outdoor advertising on communities). Advertising is good for advertisers, sure, but what about the rest of us?
During the Q&A session after the screening, Spurlock said "This film will change the way you look at advertising forever". And it does: it'll make you aware of the power of branding and of one brand in particular. Early on in the documentary, Spurlock meets a marketing analyst who breaks down the Spurlock brand as “playful and mindful” and it's the success of this brand that, pitched to potential sponsors, got the film made; and when put in front of audiences, is likeable enough to ensure profit and popularity, if the sold-put opening gala of Hot Docs was anything to go by.
Rating on a scale of 5 must-buy items: 4
Release date: TBC
Directed by: Morgan Spurlock
Written by: Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick
Interviewees include: Quentin Tarantino, JJ Abrams, Brett Ratner, Donla Trump, Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, Rick Kurnit
Running time: 90 mins