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Documentarian Morgan Spurlock goes rogue on the world of product placement

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

A man can only take so much. Eventually he reaches a tipping point. In the fall of 2007, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock decided he'd had enough.

During an episode of one of Spurlock's favorite (at the time) TV shows, "Heroes," the character Claire Bennet (portrayed by Hayden Panettiere) receives a car as a gift from her parents.

Not just any car. The Rogue!

"Oh my gosh, the Rogue!" she says, the joy of new ownership overwhelming her.

For the "Heroes"-uninitiated and the marketing-unsaturated, that would be the Nissan Rogue, a sports-utility vehicle framed very carefully to show off the car's logo on this particular episode of the NBC drama. Also the same car that would appear in commercial breaks during the show.

"The next day we came in (to the office), and we were both so angry," Spurlock said, referring to his producing partner Jeremy Chilnick.

The shameless shilling represented the latest affront to Spurlock and Chilnick's sense of propriety. After several years of watching product placement slowly infiltrate every nook and cranny of the entertainment world, the two men decided to pull back the curtain on the nasty business that has made paid-for corporate products as visible in movies as superheroes, man-children and talking animals.

Spurlock likes to provoke. And, despite the suffering he endured in his breakout doc "Super Size Me" and some of the episodes of his TV show "30 Days," he also enjoys having some fun. With his latest, "Pom Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold," he got to do both.

"I wasn't so tortured in this," Spurlock said while visiting Austin last month for the South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. "I wasn't in prison. I wasn't in a war zone. My liver wasn't failing. I wasn't in a coal mine. I wasn't living on minimum wage. I wasn't freezing or starving. This film, in all of its bizarre weirdness, was really fun to make, which I think is great."

The provocateur realized that telling a story featuring talking heads and video clips would not engage the audience enough, so he made the decision to actually make a movie about product placement funded solely by product placement. He would ask companies to help sharpen and polish their own swords before falling on them. Pretty meta.

Instead of making a straight-ahead documentary with a journalistic bent, he decided to (once again) insert himself into his film. Frederick Wiseman he is not.

"There are plenty of films we do that I'm not in, but for a film like this, I just feel like it's such a topic that's ripe for satire," Spurlock said. "And I think without having somebody kind of taking you through those paces, it's a harder story to tell and pull off the satire and make it fun. We're going on this adventure to try and raise this money to try and make this movie, and I'm taking you with me."

Perhaps not surprisingly, Spurlock received quite a bit of pushback from corporations and their advertising agencies, as he went door to door attempting to coax dark backroom advertising dealings into the light of day. Meeting after meeting revealed executives paralyzed by the fear that they would not have control of the story told about their brand.

Even though product placement seems blatantly obvious to even the casual viewer, Spurlock said his mission to secure sponsors for his movie revealed the disconnect between those selling products and the people to whom they are selling.

"Ultimately I think it's because these people are so protective of what a little island they have and the brands and the companies they represent," Spurlock said. "The last thing they want to do is say, 'Oh my God, we're not that important.' It just makes them look terrible."

The indefatigable filmmaker eventually convinced the folks at Ban deodorant that the visibility gained by partnering on the film outweighed any potential humiliation.

That deal would serve as the cornerstone for the brand-backed film that would eventually see 20 different corporations jump on Spurlock's back. Literally.

As he promotes the documentary, Spurlock travels the country wearing a black suit plastered with the logos of his corporate partners à la NASCAR driver.

Though Spurlock realizes the risks of becoming a tool for the bidding of his new corporate overlords/friends, he believes that the transparency of his endeavor simply reveals the process of the new reality of an entertainment world populated by product placement.

"That's one of the things that I think makes the film really work," Spurlock said. "Literally, at the end, all of the stuff we were critiquing at the outset of the film is everything we're using in the end to promote the film. "

As Spurlock goes rogue on the world of product placement, the companies represented on his suit are likely nodding their heads vigorously in approval.

modam@statesman.com; 912-5986