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Morgan Spurlock Launches Assault Against Onscreen Product Placement
The maker of Supersize Me has targeted advertisers who are increasingly muscling in on films and TV shows
He took on fast-food giant McDonald's in the documentary Supersize Me. Then he targeted the "war on terror" in Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? Now hit film-maker Morgan Spurlock has a new target: the advertising industry.
Spurlock, whose cinéma-vérité style has made him one of the world's best-known documentary-makers, has decided to take on the increasingly active phenomenon of product placement, whereby advertisers pay to have products used in films and TV shows.
His new film, called The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, was a smash at the Sundance festival earlier this year and will be released in the US next month. It follows Spurlock as he tries to get funding for his film from numerous corporations – an endeavour that results in a sort of exploration of the way advertisers have increasingly started to place their brands in films and television programmes.
"What I want to do is make a film about product placement, marketing and advertising where the entire film is funded by product placement, marketing and advertisement," Spurlock explains in the movie. He managed to persuade 15 brands to stump up cash. Testament to his success, the film's full-length title is POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold; a California-based pomegranate juice drink agreed a hefty sponsorship.
The film is coming out at a time when product placement is becoming increasingly controversial amid huge changes in the advertising industry. The rise of devices like Tivo – which allows people to record shows and skip adverts – and the increasing number of viewers who watch films and TV through the internet has meant that fewer people are exposed to traditional advertising. One recent statistic estimated that perhaps 90% of prime-time TV viewers in the US aren't prepared to watch the adverts. "People record shows or watch them online. I haven't watched a TV commercial in a long time," said Jeff Greenfield, the publisher of Product Placement News.
That situation has placed huge pressure on advertisers to get their products in front of viewers' eyeballs in more subtle ways. American Idol judges now sit with Coke in front of them. Car chases have the hero driving certain makes of vehicle. Actors wear clothes from particular fashion labels. Key scenes take place in well-known coffee stores. The product placement industry has become such a key part of entertainment that the BrandChannel blog doles out annual awards. In 2010 it proclaimed Apple the most successful product placement brand, noting that its products featured in 10 of the 33 number one box-office movies in the US that year. The film with the most placements was Iron Man 2, which notched an incredible 64.
The trend is now coming to Britain. Earlier this year ITV's This Morning show struck a deal with Nestlé to publicise its Dolce Gusto coffee-maker. Channel 4 is considering deals for its Hollyoaks soap opera this summer.
Not surprisingly some – including Spurlock – have warned that the invasion of corporate interests and advertising is a threat to artistic integrity. "If there is any idea that the placements are driving the movie, then it is in no one's best interests," said Professor Herbert Rotfeld, a marketing expert at Auburn University in Alabama.
In the US, concerns have been raised about news shows that feature product placement. Cups of coffee from McDonald's are put in front of presenters on some regional stations, raising a potential clash of interests if a story involves the hamburger giant.
But defenders of product placement insist that there is no problem. They point to a long tradition of Hollywood prop teams using certain products simply because it gives an air of reality.
Rotfeld believes critics of product placement underestimate how savvy viewers are. "The power of product placement is overblown," he said.
"Just because a lot of big companies spend lots of money doing something does not mean it is a good idea or that it works."