Does the movie about product placement live up to its hype?
It's no surprise that as an advertising executive I might have a problem with a movie that satirizes part of our industry: Product placement.
After all, advertising is a career choice I made decades ago and have not regretted for one moment. For the most part I find it to be an interesting and rewarding career, made up of interesting people. Advertising informs, entertains, enlightens, sells and, yes, sometimes annoys and misleads. But that is because advertising is made by people and there are imperfect people in every profession who act unethically, usually with a profit motive.
In the case of product sponsorships and placements this can be more of an issue, because these practices are intrusive, ubiquitous and difficult to avoid. This sometimes bothers me as much as it does the general public. And that's the core idea explored by the documentary "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," written and directed Morgan Spurlock.
In "Pom Wonderful," Spurlock sets out and succeeds in making a movie financed entirely by sponsors.
Spurlock is the guy who wrote and directed the documentary "Supersize Me," in which he documented the effects of a diet that consisted solely of McDonald's food for 30 days.
He made a few good points in that movie, and he makes a few good points in this movie, too, even though at times he slants the movie for laughs and entertainment value and overall it doesn't have enough depth to be considered an informative exploration into the business of advertising, sponsorship and product placement.
But for the sake of a good article, let's pretend as if it had and explore the ideas raised when turning a critical eye to that business.
Allowing product placement compromises the integrity of a brand.
It all depends. Oprah's "My Favorite Things" episodes garner large viewing audiences and give the products tremendous sales lift. Each of the companies work with the producers of the show, but each of the items is hand-picked by Oprah, who actually has investigated and selected each of the products as products she loves and is willing to endorse.
From time to time I mention in this column that I'm popping open a can of diet root beer, which I love. I've never mentioned the brand because I want you to really understand that I love diet root beer and it's more credible if I don't name the brand so you'll know that I'm not getting paid for it.
Getting paid to endorse a product opens the floodgates and you eventually become a shill.
The golfer Arnold Palmer is 81 years old and continues to earn millions (last year more than $16 million) as the lifelong pitchman for brands like Cessna and Pennzoil. He credits his success to his character, endurance, reliability and of course, integrity. So you don't have to become a shill.
But as Morgan demonstrated in the movie, by accepting money from the sponsors, if you believe products are interchangeable and if you take money from the first person in line, you'll have trouble not being seen as a shill.
Product placement is manipulative.
Most product placement is overt and mutually beneficial. The property needs money and the product needs exposure. It is usually obvious to all that a transaction is taking place.
Some placement, however, is instructive and educational. During the early HIV/AIDS days pharmaceutical companies paid my agency to imbed messages about being able to live with the virus that causes HIV/AIDS by knowing your status and adhering to a prescription regimen.
Before that, entire segments of the population suffered even though there was hope. The placements educated them. Features and benefits can be better made clear when they are demonstrated, rather than just listed in a 30-second commercial.
Ultimately it's a business, not a conspiracy.
In the film, Spurlock disparages Volkswagen because the company didn't support him, and at times gives the products he is trying to promote attributes they don't posses, such as in a segment when he is talking to Ralph Nader, trying to sell him on a pair of shoes from a well known shoe company. He tells Nader they are made in America, and at that point a super comes on the screen that reads "Actually, they are made in China." Later in the film, he gives Nader a pair of the shoes as a gift.
He makes fun of Mane and Tail, originally a horse shampoo now marketing to both equines and humans, which he genuinely believes is a weird product. Then in another scene he asks for their business with a straight face.
The fact is that people who do product placement place their brands in natural situations, in scenes where the brands are shown in the best possible light. When Tom Cruise put on Ray Bans I wanted a pair, not just because he looked cool but because I thought they would make me look cool, too. Product placements get the nuances and make that work for the brands they represent.
I would have liked Spurlock's movie a whole lot better if he had stared directly into the camera at the beginning and said he wasn't comfortable with the idea of brands infiltrating entertainment and so he was going to make a movie at the expense of an industry to make his point.
I didn't walk away believing I understood the business and could make an informed decision about what was wrong or right about it. My takeaway was that Morgan Spurlock knows how to put a spin on things and wondered what subject his next movie was going to spoof.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Larry Woodard is a director on the Advertising Week board and chairman of the American Association of Advertising Agencies' New York Council.
Get updates via SMS by texting follow grahamstan to 40404 in the United States]