The only truthful ads are those that tell you they’re lying, claims Ralph Nader in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold (2011). As per usual with Spurlock his new film is based on one simple and calculatedly controversial idea: to make a film about branding, advertising and product placement that is completely financed by these practices. The actual process of securing sponsorship also takes up most of the screen time, as Spurlock cuts between scenes of himself pitching his project to various company bosses, hoping for their advertising dollars, and interviews with some of ‘the ususal suspects’, like Nader and Noam Chomsky.
For those companies that are willing to play the game just about anything is possible. Traditional television commercials are inserted into the film. The Nader interview is interrupted for Spurlock to praise a pair of sturdy walking shoes that he presents as a publicity gift to the surprised interviewee. In a similar manner the filmmaker keeps switching suddenly into his ‘commercial voice mode’ throughout the film, heaping praise on the juice he’s constantly drinking, the pizza he eats, the airline he flies with or the chain of hotels he stays at.
Obviously it immediately turns into a parody, but one that seems curiously lacking in critical bite. A problem is that Nader is partly mistaken. Publicity can lie even when it seems to be acknowledging its basic falsehood. Ironical commercials with messages like ‘you won’t become a Hollywood star by drinking this soda, it just tastes damned good’, create their own manipulative relationship with the wished-for self-image of the consumer. Choosing that product becomes a confirmation that you are a little bit smarter, a little bit less of a sucker, than all those others. And offering carefully managed self-criticism is an excellent way of posing as more honest or more compassionate without necessarily being so.
It is without a doubt the companies that aren’t perspicacious enough to take a chance on Spurlock that are the losers here, whilst the publicity parodies he performs become effective publicity, not least because they are so clearly the entertainment highlights of the film. The repetitive and long-winded discussions around conference tables, on the other hand, produce few verbal exchanges of interest. I constantly wish that Spurlock would provoke a little more, confront the corporation people with the idea that they should sponsor him in the name of free speech even if his film will turn out to be a critical one. As it is, he ducks away as soon as there are any hints of jarring notes in a conversation. It’s all about ‘respect’ and ‘partnership’. I can’t help but to think of Michael Moore, another filmmaker who never hesitates to put his own ego at the centre of a film and who often uses humour and pranks to make a point, much as Spurlock does. Moore’s analyses are, perhaps, not always abysmally deep, but he never shies away from asking uncomfortable questions.
With Spurlock it all becomes rather cute. I can’t stop myself from suspecting that this film is more about building the ‘Spurlock brand’ – the friendly neighbour and loving family man of the indie doc world – than it is about questioning the commercialisation of culture and the power of corporations over who gets to say what in an exploding media landscape where competition for ad money has become increasingly razor sharp.
In fact, this Spurlock brand building does work up to a point. I find myself believing that he is a great dad when I see him shampooing his son’s hair with the sponsoring hair product, bizarrely marketed for both human and animal use.[i] But when he then goes on to wash the mane of a Shetland pony standing beside the bathtub the phrase ‘one trick pony’ comes to mind. As a filmmaker that seems to be what Spurlock is all about: one trick per film, and a rather simple one at that. It worked pretty well for Supersize Me, but since it has worn rather thin.
Daniel Lindvall is Film International’s editor-in-chief.