'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.

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).

As Lucian James, a marketing consultant whose "American Brandstand" index used to tabulate corporate mentions appearing on the Billboard charts, claims, "Using brands in lyrics is an incredibly poetic way to express yourself." Or as Scott Donaton, author of Madison & Vine, puts it, "Brands have become the new A & R department."

The notion that brands might usurp more and more of the "middleman" role once played by advertising agencies and media companies is dawning, perhaps most forebodingly, on the publishing industry, which, if you haven't heard, hasn't exactly had the best decade when it comes to financing newspapers, magazines, and books.

Author Fay Weldon controversially delivered The Bulgari Connection's title space as well as 34 mentions throughout to the Italian jeweler; Target plunked down its peppermint logo under the cover flap of The New Yorker as well as every nook and cranny of the ad well; elementary school math textbooks contain brand mentions to Gatorade, Oreo, and Nike; and ESPN.com pioneered what might be journalism's first in-column product placement running feature with Bill Simmons' "Miller Lite Great Call of the Week." Pom Presents The Pentagon Papers, anyone?

And we are not simply witnessing that commercial creep into film and TV—or pop music and video games for that matter. Advertising is, as a media scholar once wrote, "geographically imperialistic, looking for new territories it has not yet conquered." If the title of Pom Wonderful Presents The Greatest Story Ever Sold elicits a wry giggle, the specter of Pom Wonderful Presents The New York Times or Pom Wonderful Presents Your Best Friend's Status Update or Pom Wonderful Presents A Casual Conversation With Your Cousin might give us more pause.

On one level, we have no one but ourselves to blame. The more we steel against marketer entreaty in familiar venues—armed with our DVRs and pop-up blockers—and the more that we refuse to pay for editorial content, be it entertainment or journalistic, the more the media and advertising industries will need to wind up in bed together in order to survive. And the ongoing development of such branded material could be a harbinger for how these businesses are funded and managed—redefining their roles in, rules for, and relationship to popular content.

But if advertising is, indeed, "geographically imperialistic," and the growth of word-of-mouth marketing over the past decade is any indication—whereby brands try to seed buzz in our everyday conversations—we may well be facing the next creepy horizon of commercial colonization: "real life product placement."

And that's just really sad.