Documentary meets Marketing

by Ariana Pekary, producer

Morgan Spurlock is masterful. His films are incredibly clever and entertaining and this last one is no exception. Whether it’s intentional or not, he’s mastered the art of being the man “not in the know.” Maybe it’s his signature mustache that strips the Hollywood slickness from his image. Maybe it’s the folksy way he talks. Either way, he presents himself as a “regular guy” who is easy to follow. And that’s not always simple to do, especially when you’re watching a film about itself.

But luckily for us, he does actually know what he’s doing. Even though Spurlock allegedly was rejected from the USC Film school five times, he eventually graduated from New York University’s film school in 1993. So he wasn’t exactly an amateur with a video camera who had the funny idea in 2004 to eat only McDonald’s food for a month to make Supersize Me.

In his latest work POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, Spurlock retains his charm and wit, and as always, fully immerses himself in the making of the documentary, even if to a fault. In the film, Spurlock shows the process of getting sponsors. At times, it felt like an M. C. Escher print and you are uncertain if you were standing in the middle of the chaos, or in front (watching it unfold) or behind (knowing, of course the film gets made.) Most people know, or at least accept, that companies will pay big dollars to have their products used and displayed in a Hollywood blockbuster. But they might not know the extent of that competitive business, even when the end product is a relatively low budget documentary ($1.5 million) with its sights set on the marketing industry itself. One of the executives for Ban deodorant (which eventually gave $50,000 to the film) worries about Spurlock’s controversial reputation and asked if the filmmaker would disparage the product.

The movie maker from West Virginia assured his sponsors that he wouldn’t take jabs at the products themselves, but he may have also failed to complete the due diligence expected of most journalists. POM Wonderful agreed to be the primary sponsor the film, to the tune of one million dollars. For that sum, Spurlock conducted all remaining interviews with a bottle of POM Wonderful pomegranate juice within view and he tucked in a couple of 30 second POM Wonderful advertisements within the documentary. What Spurlock didn’t do, and likely what his followers would expect him to do, is to make sure any statements he made on behalf of a product were true. As it turns out, last September, the Federal Trade Commission charged Pom Wonderful for making false claims about their product, claims which Spurlock repeats throughout his film. Specifically, POM Wonderful says that their juice will “prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, and erectile dysfunction.” That scientific claim is bunk, apparently, and Spurlock knew it.

That said, let’s call this film “performance art” and allow that misstep to be counted as part of the act. There is definitely enough surprising content here to make the film worth your time. Besides, as gripping as Spurlock might be, he probably considers himself more of an entertainer than a journalist…so what if a couple thousand men of a certain age unnecessarily load up on the tart juice?