Sunday, June 3, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold

I'm a little behind on this, but I recently watched Morgan Spurlock's "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold".

There's certainly an element of this film that is kind of pointless. Spurlock himself seems to want to make a compelling intellectual point about advertising, but for the most part, the film is really just about himself. Of course, this is no different from Super Size Me or Where in the World is Osama Bin Ladin, and many of the other projects he's created. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but in a way, it will always keep his work from being particularly moving. I'd bet that anyone who goes into this film hating the very idea of advertising will walk out thinking that it's as awful as they always believed, and people who go in thinking advertising is perfectly ok aren't going to find anything here to dislike.

There's no really impressive or profound message here. We all already know that product placement exists, and I think the vast majority of us are pretty ambivalent about it unless it actively takes you out of enjoying the show.

I can remember several instances of obnoxious product placement in recent TV shows like Heroes, Smallville and other action-heavy productions. Not that it's surprising that a show that's going to need to blow up a few cars each season or have people flying around the world and shooting laser beams from their eyes needs the extra cash... But when you have one character basically stop a scene to tell the other character how great their new Nissan "Yaris" is, well........ That's pretty crass.

But the thing is, we all know it's crass, and we spot it a mile away - and it's not very effective.

The really interesting and compelling aspect of "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" for me is simply the behind-the-scenes view of marketing executives and the advertisers Spurlock is working with to finance the film. Oddly enough, I actually enjoyed the parts left on the cutting room floor better than the final cut of the film in some ways.

For example, we get to watch Morgan Spurlock ask nearly everyone he interviewed the question, "What's your favorite ad of all time?"

What's interesting about that is apart from a few really iconic ones, like the classic 1984 Apple ad, is that quite a few people couldn't really remember what brands their favorite advertisements were actually for. I've seen this kind of thing many times over the years, and it's one of those reasons that I don't really think that any of this is all that big of a deal.

More on that in a second.

Also in the deleted scenes, we get to see far more of Ralph Nader and watch him demonstrate as clearly as it's possible to show that he fundamentally believes that he should be the sole arbiter of what people should be allowed to see or think, and what they should be allowed to sell - and as such, he also gets to decide what people should be allowed to buy and have.

Nader frequently gets called a "consumer advocate"... But... Exactly whom is he an advocate for, I wonder?

The kind of insulting, infantilizing and paternalist nonsense he advocates doesn't treat consumers with respect, it treats them with contempt. Dictating to other people what they can see or hear on TV, what kinds of ads people can create, and what kinds of products should and should not be available to consumers is honestly the most condescending thing I can think of. It is literally telling everyone else that they have no willpower, that they are easily manipulated, stupid sheep, and that they don't know what's best for their own lives....... and that, more importantly, Ralph Nader does know better.

Nader has never figured out that people actually do vary in terms of needs, wants and judgments of value.

So he's appointed himself the "protector" of people who don't need his protection. And though he makes it into the final cut of the movie, the additional footage found in the deleted scenes just drives this point home.

And really... This is my bigger complaint with the film actually.

Spurlock seeks out branding "experts" of all kinds - people in market and advertising departments, people who create TV and print ads, brand managers of the various companies that paid for the movie's production. He even talks to Frank Luntz ("fuck you, Frank!"). These were the people who are supposed to represent the "pro-advertising", and "pro-product placement" side of things. He then talks to such fabulous luminaries as Noam Chomsky, and a bunch of professors (of what I'm not certain, actually) and politicians who - like Nader - believe that advertising is "pernicious", and is ruining society.

But... You know who he doesn't talk to?

Spurlock doesn't visit with a single economist. Not one. Not in the entire film does anyone who might actually have some insight on to the overall picture of advertising and markets. This is a pretty big gap in the discussion though, because without these voices, the film leaves the audience with only the idea that advertising is either ugly, but necessary... or... it's just flat out evil.

The thing is though, Nader and Chomsky and those guys think that advertising is awful because ultimately, they despise the results of advertising - that is, they despise the very idea of people exchanging goods & services for money. It's especially awful (to them), because businesses use advertising as a means of getting a bigger market-share, in order to.... *GASP!*... profit.

Profit is, of course, the problem.

In my own experience, I find that people believe it's a problem because they don't understand that businesses profit in the non-political realm by providing value to other people. Chomsky and the like might say that advertising deceives people into believing that they value or need something they wouldn't otherwise want, but let's think about that for a minute.

What those guys are saying, in reality, is that they're much smarter than you or I, and they know what we need, want and should be able to get - and more importantly, what we don't need and shouldn't be able to get.

That reality is never spoken about, and Morgan Spurlock certainly doesn't cover it. I suspect he largely sympathizes with it, although given that he is the real subject of the film, I imagine that Spurlock is someone who isn't all that committal about any kind of moral philosophy. Or perhaps he is, but won't let that get in the way of an opportunity for self-promotion.

In any case, the fact that this doesn't get spoken about is somewhat telling to me.

Nobody wants to admit or own up to the fact that by trying to control people's economic decisions, they are literally expressing contempt for people they believe to be dumber and less capable of thinking critically about advertising than they are. Now... Maybe some people aren't very smart and are very easily swayed by TV commercials. Ok. Fair enough, QVC is pretty popular, after all.

But let's pose a rather important question, just because nobody else did.

Nader claimed that you'll see millions of ads in your lifetime. I'm sure he's right about that. But what he neglected to say was that you'll see millions of different ads... Quite a large number of them produced by companies competing for your attention within the very same market, in fact!

So... The question is this: If you see ads for Coke, Pepsi, RC Cola, Dr. Pepper, Mountain Dew, Dasani Water, Red Bull, and for good measure, POM Wonderful, in the same day, what do you do?

Are you so easily "manipulated" that you instantly run out and buy every one of them having been successfully brainwashed by all the ads? Do you decide you're thirsty and pick one of those beverages? And if so... Is it just the best ad that wins you over? If so, what precisely constitutes, "the best" ad? Since preferences are subjective and vary from person to person, a single person's tastes, values, sense of self-image profoundly influence the ad that person is going to think is best.

What's more, what if you decide that you're thirsty because of one of these ads and you simply go to the fridge and get some milk and it doesn't compel you to buy anything at all?

When you really start thinking about what compels people to engage in trading behavior, human motivations are a hell of a lot more complex than people like Ralph Nader would want you to believe. The over-simplifications people like that engage in tend to stem from a failure to understand a lot of economics basics, but those over-simplifications make it so that there's always a villainous merchant and a poor, ignorant, consumer being taken advantage of.

And by the way... In this case, "being taken advantage of" actually just means consumers exchanging money for stuff the consumer wants made by somebody else voluntarily. It's ghastly, I tell you!

Ultimately, it's always going to be up to you what you do and what you buy, advertising or not - unless someone can actually force you to do buy what they're selling.

But who would be doing the forcing, I wonder? Could it be.......... Government?

I've often said that politicians really need to go through at least a crash course in Public Choice theory before they can be allowed to serve in government. This is precisely because of people like Ralph Nader. On the one hand, they want to save me from myself - so they argue that politics should be in charge of a lot of personal decisions made in the market. For my own good, of course. What they fail to grasp, however, is that once politicians have the power to make those kinds of decisions; big, well-connected individuals can swoop in and sway those politicians into using that power to the advantage of the companies that they run at the expense of competing companies who don't have those connections.

It's pretty straight forward really... If a politician asserts that he gets to decide which types of ads are acceptable, and which aren't, or which products are ok to be sold and which aren't, then what happens is anyone with access to that politician will put in some lobbying effort to make sure that what's "acceptable" is whatever they are doing, and what isn't acceptable is whatever their competitors are doing.

There's no principle to uphold really... Just the whim of the politician in charge.

But of course, we don't want to talk about that in the context of Spurlock's movie - I'm guessing simply because he doesn't understand how this works any better himself. Nader most certainly doesn't. Neither does Chomsky, or any of the other academics in the film.

It's too bad, really.

One other thing that's pretty unfortunate as well, is that the film completely omits the hundreds of millions a year the United States Armed Services spend on the movie & TV business in product placement. He also glossed over the fact that a good part of the tax-payer financed bailout of the General Motors corporation went directly into getting GM's mediocre automobiles into every movie made in the last several years - most notably, Transformers.

Not sure if this just didn't make it into Spurlock's footage, or it was a deliberate omission, but it strikes me as a little odd to talk about product placement without addressing the huge amount of money the government itself spends on placing government propaganda into entertainment.

It is literally that type of propaganda that compelled me to leave the entertainment industry a couple years into that career and do free-market media production instead.

So ultimately........ "POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold" is cute, light and fluffy - and above anything else, it's really just a vehicle for Morgan Spurlock to make some money doing what he enjoys doing. Nothing wrong with that, although it's a little at odds with Spurlock's own stated (and implied) philosophies. It's pretty entertaining, and Spurlock's antics are often worth watching, but it omits or avoids so much in the discussion that in a way, the whole film is totally pointless as a documentary. If anything, I may have learned a few insights into how best to go about trying to find corporate sponsors, but then, most of that material wasn't particularly counter-intuitive anyway.

It's really simple, actually.

You cold call hundreds of people, pitch your ideas, and hope that they say yes. Most won't call you back. Of those who do, most will say no. If you're lucky, a handful of people will say "yes", but when you get the contract, it's a few dozen pages long and the money they hand you (or promise to hand you later on, if you've met all their terms) comes with a lot of strings.

No big surprise there.

Does this make for mind-blowing, ground-breaking documentary cinema? Well... No. Not really. But it was pretty fun all the same, and I do think if you have a chance, watching all of the DVD "extras" is well worth your time... Especially if you're interested at all in seeing how the product placement process really works.

It's neither as dastardly, nor as scary as some would make it out to believe. Mostly, I find it predictable.

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