Morgan Spurlock takes on the ad industry
Documentarian Morgan Spurlock, famous for his 30-day McDonald's binge flick Super Size Me, which chronicled the effects of junk food on our lives, is now taking aim at how corporations sneak their brands into films, commercials, and even our brains.
In The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which opens nationwide this week, Spurlock enters America's largest company's boardrooms to try to obtain financing for his latest project. By far his funniest film (especially hilarious is a running gag of him hawking an actual shampoo called Mane 'n Tail geared toward humans and horses), it also explores some serious themes. Spurlock takes us into the cash-strapped front office of Broward County Public Schools and its search for ad money, and provides a revealing look at São Paulo, Brazil, where a new law bans all outdoor ads.
Ultimately he reveals just how saturated our lives have become with product placement and branding, and how everything from the requisite summer blockbuster movie to the smaller, lesser-known art film is influenced and manipulated by the advertising industry. We spoke with Spurlock about his new film, the school district budget cuts, and the awesomeness that is Mane 'n Tail shampoo.
New Times: Super Size Me was inspired when you noticed the obesity epidemic in this country. Was there anything specific that inspired you to make this film?
Morgan Spurlock: It came from a conversation we had about everywhere we look, you know, in movies and on TV, it seems like there was some kind of product placement in there where ultimately it was becoming a part of the dialogue, becoming a part of the story line. Everywhere you look now, it's on every channel, every film. We just wanted to rip open that world and actually get companies to pay us [to do it]. We thought it was a great idea. But it became a much more difficult proposition once we started trying to raise the money.
The film says it cost $1.5 million to finance this movie. Did all of that come from the companies we see?
Yes. All of it. Plus the full amount we raised was actually $1.8 million, because they paid for the commercials that we shot and placed in the film as well. Those were about a hundred grand each.
So it was 100 percent paid for by each of the corporations featured?
Yes. With the exception of Mane 'n Tail, who want to make sure you know that they didn't pay a dime to be in this movie. They are there literally out of the good graces of their own heart. And my desire!
Given your status as a sort of maverick, sort of troublemaker, was there any hostile pushback from the bigger corporations like Coca-Cola or Nike, for example? Anyone tell you to fuck off?
Nobody told me to fuck off [laughs], which was surprising. But there were a lot of people who said, "Listen, we don't want anything to do with you; we don't want to work with you." There was a lot more raw honesty in people than anything. But then there were other people that we spoke to who would say, "Listen, I'll do anything to help you that won't get me fired." You know, people who were in a certain place in the pecking order and want to talk about things and want to take risks. But the advertising industry is an incredibly risk-averse industry. All of these companies want to protect these cash-cow companies that are paying them all this money all the time. Ultimately what I think this film starts to show is that a lot of these companies probably don't really need these ad agencies.
Was there anything about talking to these corporations that surprised you?
I was surprised that anyone said yes at all. We went into those meetings and said we want to show the advertising world in all its ugly glory, and the fact that people paid for that is amazing.
A huge part of Super Size Me was how McDonald's constantly bombards kids with their commercials, with toys and Happy Meals. Do you see similar negative themes with ads geared toward adults?
Well, I think what the film does is explore a lot of interesting topics, starting with neuromarketing, which is a very scary concept — this idea that ultimately they're putting people in MRIs to target the desire centers of your brain. They're putting you in a machine, watching your brain, showing you commercials and movie trailers to make those commercials and movie trailers focus more on your desire centers. To make you want them more. To make you crave them. To make you have a release of dopamine when you see it, which is going to make you want to have that physical connection to it.
In Broward County, we shot sections talking about how cash-strapped school districts are now and how they're becoming beholden to advertisers and marketers. They need the money. So now you're seeing this ad creep coming into the school system. I think that's something people definitely have to talk about. I just heard that the governor said he wants to cut 10 percent out of the education budget for all of Florida. In Miami-Dade, that's about $300 million. Where are you going to make that up? How are the school districts going to take care of that? That's a huge piece of the conversation I think that people need to have.
I mean, São Paulo is doing a really interesting thing [by banning outdoor ads], because can you even imagine what Miami would look like if it got rid of all the advertisements? Suddenly all the billboards were gone. I mean, how would that change the landscape here? It would be a huge shock. São Paulo looks so different now, like an ancient city like Rome. It's beautiful.
Did you notice a significant difference in people's lifestyles because their city is now ad-free?
What you do is you really start to see everything. Because ultimately, everywhere you go, you're seeing nothing but the landscape. Trees, the buildings, the people. There are very few distractions. What they've done is championed these artists, and there are so many outdoor art projects there now. If you're going to pull those ads away and turn it over to the artists, that's a beautiful thing. It would be amazing if some communities here in the States would say, "You know what? We should do something like that." It would be remarkable.
It would be a miracle.
[Laughs] Yeah, a miracle, exactly.
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