“I want you to eat your spinach, but I’ll make it taste like cotton candy,” is how Morgan Spurlock describes his brand of educational documentary. From “Super Size Me” to “30 Days,” Spurlock has always been shining a light into dark corners of popular human experience. He shines again with his newest film “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which takes viewers behind the scenes of marketing and advertising and shows how they pervade nearly every facet of North American culture.
Spurlock’s great ambition as a documentary filmmaker was to have the entire budget of this film paid for by sponsors, and turn that process into the film itself. Such is the premise – to make a film about marketing and product placement that is paid for by the brands themselves. As he works advertising agencies, corporations and lawyers, he makes transparent a shadowy business of product placement and cross-promotion in our everyday lives.
The film is a lighthearted, playful essay about the pervasiveness of advertising today, but also brings up some concern about how sneaky and manipulative advertising will become in the future. In one scene, Spurlock is subjected – by an advertising executive – to a brain scan which records his reaction to emotionally-triggering advertisements (narrowly focused clips triggering fear, sexual arousal and craving.) The dopamine levels don’t lie: Spurlock, it is clear, is addicted to Coca Cola.
“In the future,” Spurlock explained to me after the Opening Night Gala at Hot Docs, “they will film commercials with the product as a green screen to which they can superimpose any beverage, cereal – whatever – according to your tastes that you’ve expressed by say, searching the Internet for a similar product. The way that Google provides you with ads tailored to your tastes today, TV commercials and television programs will tailor ads to you in the very near future.”
I told my husband, who colour-corrects TV commercials, this information. He concurred – in fact, he had just worked on a commercial which had been shot half a dozen ways to promote half a dozen different varieties of a product.
“So you believed this brain-scan guy?” I asked. “Oh absolutely,” Spurlock replied.
In a segue during the film, Spurlock takes us to São Paulo, Brazil where public outdoor advertising has been banned. Without billboards and posters weighing down and distracting us, there is a calm – even in the bustle of mid-day traffic – that seems both lonely and releasing at the same time.
And that is the spinach eating part of the film to me: in our world where advertising and marketing business is a multi-billion dollar business to make us buy things we don’t even need, there is a quiet stream nearby where we can take a walk and remember what being human is really like.
“POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” opens in theaters across Canada on Friday.