'The Greatest Movie Ever Sold' and the Future of Product Placement

Morgan Spurlock's latest film lampoons our brand-infused culture—but what lies ahead for advertising is no laughing matter


flickr/Laughing Squid

"The audience cannot notice the integration but must remember it."
Jak Severson, managing partner at Madison Road Entertainment

Some two decades ago, in a sly yet silly vignette from Wayne's World, Mike Myers and Rob Lowe exchange testy remarks about a sponsor's gauche intrusion into Wayne's cable access show. Reclining nearby in mullet-to-toe Reebok gear, Garth, Wayne's companion and co-host, laments, "It's like people only do things because they get paid. And that's just really sad."

It's not sad, of course; Garth—and Reebok—are in on the joke, and the product placement manages to charm its way through its own obtrusiveness to memorable effect. This weekend, Morgan Spurlock, documentarian provocateur last seen eating his way to angina in 2004's Super Size Me, gives that same joke full-length treatment in a film financed by and about "advertainment"—the increasingly pervasive nexus of commercialization and entertainment.

Knowingly or not, Spurlock's wink-wink meta-narrative on promotional culture speaks to a much more serious, simmering crisis of faith in the media industry today. No longer able to depend on traditional institutions of advertising to get their message across, corporations need a vessel. No longer able to depend on the publishing and programming apparatus that long supported them, creators of pop culture need a patron.

And thanks to profound economic and technological transformations, audiences' ability to filter out advertising from their lives—via TiVo, satellite radio, national Do Not Call registries, spam filters, and the like—may one day result in all content becoming branded content.

Audiences' ability to filter out advertising from their lives...may one day result in all content becoming branded content.

Although branding in entertainment traces a long history well predating not just Wayne's World's tongue-in-cheek deployment or E.T.'s high-profile use of Reese's Pieces, such commercial collusion has exploded in recent decades. In 2009, it reached an all-time U.S. high of $25 billion in revenues after 35 years of consecutive growth and four years of double-digit growth, according to PQ Media, an analytics firm. Nielsen counted as many as 100,000 placement appearances in a single season of network programming. As the producer of Survivor once unsentimentally quipped: "[It] is as much a marketing vehicle it is a television show... My shows create an interest, and people will look at them, but the endgame here is selling the products in stores—a car, deodorant, running shoes. It's the future of television."

It's not only the future of television. Pop music, an industry whose revenue model has been battered in the past decade by digitalization, peer-to-peer networks, and illegal downloading, has begun experimenting with its own furtive form of corporate ventriloquism to the tune of $30 million for lyrical insertions. Since Run-DMC first rhapsodized about their sneakers in the 1980s, hip hop has, in particular, played an outsized role in this game: When Busta Ryhmes and P. Diddy dropped "Pass the Courvoisier," sales for the premium liquor jumped nearly 20 percent; McDonalds has reportedly tendered financial bounty to any rap star that weaves the Big Mac into rhymes; Jay-Z inked a "poetry-for-pagers" deal with Motorola; and Wrigley's commissioned Chris Brown's top-10 smash, "Forever" (with its chorus line nod to a 1980s Doublemint jingle).

Presented by

Michael Serazio, an assistant professor of communication at Fairfield University, is the author of Your Ad Here: The Cool Sell of Guerrilla Marketing, which will be released in April.

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