I feel certain that until I watched the comic documentary The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, I had never before heard Ralph Nader utter these words: "How's the arch support?"
Nader asks that unexpected question as director, cowriter and star Morgan Spurlock interviews him about the perils of advertising. Spurlock has signed up Merrell Shoes for product placement in his film, and in the midst of a serious discussion, he begins puckishly touting the footwear's virtues to the famous consumer advocate.
It's a funny moment, one of many. With his gonzo approach to the making of documentaries, Spurlock is a canny entertainer, and the film's premise, ingeniously executed, is a wacky, hall-of-mirrors sort of idea. Spurlock is making a documentary about product placement in movies, and to finance it, he will secure product-placement arrangements with companies. Throughout the film, he is shown negotiating deals to place products in his film about product placement.
Confused? So are many of the business types Spurlock approaches, and here he loses me. One of my least favorite entertainment modes is watching people being made fools of, as on Punk'd. I squirmed watching Spurlock pitch his absurd premise to perplexed representatives of, for example, Ban deodorant. If you think practical jokes are the highest form of cleverness, especially if their purpose is to mock obscure corporate functionaries whose crime is showing up for a meeting in good faith, you'll love these scenes. Only POM Wonderful owner Lynda Resnick sees right through him - and plays along, because she's intrigued by what he's selling.
I agree with Spurlock about the insidiousness of product placement, whereby companies pay to have their wares shown in films and TV programs. I like to know when the commercial ends and the show begins, and product placement blurs that line. That's disingenuous, and it isn't good for art. Spurlock also comes down hard on advertising to kids in school. Amen.
But he falters when he tries to argue against all forms of advertising, period. In one segment the film visits So Paulo, Brazil, which has banned outdoor advertising. An optician says that in the absence of ads, "We work to give products people want." So companies that do advertise don't work to give products people want?
Shots of So Paulo document the advertising-free city. To me, frankly, it looks drab, especially compared to images of Times Square that are shown, disapprovingly, at the beginning of the film. That tacky district, with its flashing lights and garish advertising, is an unforgettable American icon. I wouldn't have it any other way.