Morgan Spurlock is throwing a corporate-sponsored party in Pennsylvania, and we're all invited.
That's the best way I can describe how it felt to join the traveling circus of PR reps, corporate partners and a smattering of press who followed Spurlock to western Pennsylvania yesterday, to a town of 50,000 formerly known as Altoona. Sitting at the front of the planes and buses that took us there, occasionally cheering for no reason and constantly proclaiming it "The Greatest Day Ever," Spurlock never dropped his attitude that was part-cruise director and part-corporate shill, an attitude that's of course entirely crucial to his marketing of his new film, The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which critiques product placement and invasive advertising by embracing it fully for the sake of funding the film. If you want more on the film and its rabbit hole of meta-narratives and commentary, you can read my Sundance review.
As of yesterday's 1 p.m. renaming ceremony Altoona will be known for the next 60 days as POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold; it's a genuine stunt that Spurlock and the town are pulling with more than a solid dose of irony, promoting a movie that spends an entire chapter criticizing the infiltration of advertising into public schools. Here's how Spurlock described his intent to me as I caught up with him at the Shriner's Hall where the movie screened in Altoona that night:
I think it's an extension of the comment of the film. T this continues that narrative, continues this question of where do you draw the line between brands and your community. This asks the question, do we really want to live in a time when everything is brought to you by this sponsor?What I wondered all day in Altoona, though, was if that wasn't exactly how people were feeling. The renaming ceremony boasted free coffee and donuts from Sheetz, the local convenience store chain that was a major sponsor of the film, and of course free POM Wonderful pomegranate juice from the company that paid $1 million for marquee sponsor placement above the title (and for 60 days, on the name of Altoona, Pennsylvania. The Altoona residents who attended the ceremony seemed to get that, yes, there was something tongue-in-cheek going on here-- most seemed at least somewhat familiar with Spurlock from Super Size Me, and realized he wouldn't go full-on corporate shill without cause. But the atmosphere in Altoona was cheerful and it was corporate-sponsored-- asked about the name change one kid in the marching band on hand for the celebration responded, "I don't mind being a fruit for two months. We're all like little pomegranate seeds." I'll bet you anything POM Wonderful has found in him a new customer, even though they're also part of the critique.
I'm a big fan of POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, and have no doubt that anyone who walks out of the film will be more thoughtful and aware of product placement and pervasive advertising than they were before. But the advertising for the movie, and in turn the advertising for the sponsors, will reach far more people than those who actually see the movie; I wonder how many residents of Altoona will know their town has been renamed as a meta-commentary on sponsorship, and isn't just a corporate takeover entirely. Seeing Greatest Movie Ever Sold gives such a strong dose of advertising that it's a kind of inoculation, but I worry that the lower dosage of merely seeing the ads, or visiting Altoona, only adds to the corporate infection. Not everyone who attended the naming ceremony had tickets for the screening that night; with knowledge of only the publicity stunt and not the film behind it, haven't they just been exposed to more advertising without being encouraged to think about it further?
Spurlock, in his suit emblazoned with his sponsor logos and a born pitchman's unwavering cool, shows no sign of the exhaustion I felt by the end of just one day in his corporate-branded world. In our interview he warned of a dire future: "So what are we going to do, we're going to go to the Bank of America Prospect Park? Do I take my little boy to the Mountain Dew playground, push him down the Twizzler Slide?" But spending the day on Spurlock's Sheetz-sponsored bus and chartered Jet Blue flight felt kind of like that future, especially in the company of the PR reps for both the studio and the sponsors, all of them who seemed pretty delighted by all the advertising they were getting. During the free lunch stop at a local Sheetz, buying a six-pack of Stella-- not a sponsor-- felt like a revolutionary act.
Foreseeing a future in which our every move requires a sponsor and an advertisement, Spurlock has dunked himself into the most extreme version of it, perhaps trying to save us all from wearing logo suits of our own. While still under contract to promote the film that corporate sponsorship made possible, Spurlock still happily extolls the virtues of Jet Blue and POM, and swears when he's done promoting he'll go stay at a Hyatt (another sponsor) on the beautiful island of Aruba (yep, that too). But when POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold is really said and done, and Spurlock can go back to being a normal citizen, I hope he feels at least a bit of my logo exhaustion. I hope he gets the chance to spend a few minutes staring at a tree or a lake or a City Hall building, unlike the one in Altoona, that's sponsored by no one.