Morgan Spurlock wakes up bright and early the morning of the Kentucky Derby. The Oscar-nominated director, 40, and his father Ben, meet me at 6:30 a.m. in the lobby of the Hyatt Louisville to head to the D. Wayne Lukas racing stables to catch the horses getting ready for their big day.
And voila – there are two bottles of The Original Mane ‘n Tail Shampoo front and center as the horses get washed and groomed.
Is the appearance of the bottles a coincidence, or something more? Morgan covers the concept of product placement in his documentary POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, which is in theaters now.
“It’s a film all about advertising, marketing and product placement,” he tells me. “The whole film was paid for by advertising and product placement. What the film does is do a great job at pulling back the curtain and showing you how things work, showing you how this world of advertising and marketing works, and what I personally love about the film are the conversations you get access to – the board rooms and the conference rooms that you’re privy to for the first time ever, where you suddenly start to see, hear and understand the manipulation that happens behind closed doors when it comes to advertising and marketing.”
For Morgan, finding takers didn’t happen easily.
“People were scared; people are afraid of this movie. People are afraid of me making the film; people were very afraid of transparency, of the honesty, the idea that we were going to talk about contracts, that we were going to talk about negotiations, that we wanted to film those negotiations. People in the advertising world are incredibly afraid of honesty. That is so telling in its own right, and to me, the brands that came onboard, were spectacular for doing it.”
When the film debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, fifteen sponsors were involved, and now 22 have signed on. But the final tally is the result of pursuing 600 companies since 2009. When Ban deodorant signed on, POM Wonderful, Hyatt and Jet Blue followed.
Wait … we’re staying at the Hyatt?
“It’s the greatest hotel you’ll ever experience,” he says.
So why The Original Mane ‘n Tail?
“It’s a shampoo for both horses and people,” he explains. “How do you not have that in your movie? The minute I found that, the minute we started talking about it, I said ‘we have to put this in the movie.’ The minute I came up with the whole commercial that I wanted to make and put in the film for Mane ‘n Tail, I was like ‘we have to pull this off, we have to get them.’ And I chased them. And it wasn’t easy – it wasn’t like they called me right back. I called [publicist] Beth White over and over again, and finally Beth White called me back, and then I called again and again, and she got me on the phone with [Straight Arrow president] Devon [Katzev], and then they said ‘yes.’ But they weren’t onboard since day one. It took a little selling. It was talking about what the project was, letting them understand that the whole film is a satire of advertising and marketing, and I felt that, by them being part of it, it would be good for them, and would present them in a positive light, because I thought it would make them look a lot smarter than the other people.”
Celebrated horse trainer D. Wayne Lukas makes an appearance, and gladhands with Morgan and his dad before we head back to the hotel to get into our Derby gear. Morgan makes a very important phone call – to the florist, for Mother’s Day. He offers an extra $25 for a guarantee that it will make it to his mom in time for the holiday, and asks that the card read “To The Greatest Mother Ever” – an ode to his film title POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.
Then, it’s time for brunch at The Oakroom inside Louisville’s Seelbach Hilton, and finally – we’re off to Churchill Downs to see the Derby, where Morgan asks me to put the just-in-case poncho in my purse. (No umbrellas allowed.)
While he is otherwise engaged placing a bet at the counter, I make time with his father Ben in our clubhouse box seats. He visits Louisville from his home in Parkersburg, West Virginia. When asked how proud he is of his famous son, his dad shares that his mom was excited to find seven Google news alerts about him this morning. He also shows off photos of his ten grandchildren. Aww!
Alas, there’s no winning bet in this box, and we head back to the hotel in the white van when the conversation returns to advertising.
“We were at the Kentucky Derby, brought to you by Yum! brands – presented by Yum! brands. As they’re starting the Kentucky Derby today, they said ‘this entire day is brought to you by Yum! brands, owners of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell’ – and they name five companies. They said, ‘the largest fast food corporation in the world.’ And I’m like ‘wow, here it is again.’ This whole day talks about everything that this movie is about. Like, do we really need to live in a world where everything’s brought to us by some sponsor? That’s what’s happening. That’s ultimately where we are. It’s the whole idea that you can’t leave your house, you can’t go anywhere these days without it feeling like someone’s trying to sell you something.”
Indeed, product placement is everywhere, from Britney Spears and Lady Gaga videos to the American Idol-Coca-Cola connection to Acura GL being named “the official car of Thor.”
Morgan doesn’t have a problem until advertising starts influencing entertainment content.
“When somebody drives up in the scene and goes, ‘boy, I’m glad I made it here so quick. That Acura handles like a dream’ … when people say things like that in dialogue, I think it’s a problem,” he says. “When the marketing person influences the entertainment, it’s an issue. The two shouldn’t cross-polinate, and ultimately let the creative people be creative, and the people who make entertainment make entertainment, and let them figure it out.”
The influence of marketing in content has become more prevalent because of technological advances.
“It’s all money,” he says. “It’s always money. It’s getting more prominent, and it’s not just because the economy’s bad. It’s because of the DVR revolution with television. When was the last time you sat down and said ‘at 8:00, I’m going to watch this show’? It’s the Oscars, the Super Bowl, the Grammys. It’s the NBA playoffs. That’s destination TV for me. The rest of the time is absolutely not. The last season of Lost? I love Lost. Love that show. The last season of Lost, I would get to my house, turn on the TV at 9:17, because over years of DVRing, I knew that if I started it right around 9:17, as I fast forward through all the commercials, I would finish the show right at real time. There were almost 17 minutes of commercials I would miss by doing that.”
Although he may not like product placement, he believes it is successful.
“People say ‘what’s wrong with product placement? Why does that work?’ Product placement by itself doesn’t work, but there are plenty of people who walk out of seeing Greatest Movie saying ‘I had to get a POM immediately.’ There are plenty of people who say, ‘after that, I went and bought an Amy’s Pizza.’ I’ve gotten those emails and those Tweets from people – it’s phenomenal. It works on some level.”
He adds, “When I saw E.T., I went and got Reese’s Pieces after I saw that film. I’d never had them. I love M&Ms, I love Reese’s Cups. Here’s a Reese’s Cup in an M&M? It worked on me.”
The secret lies in the ever-presence of the message.
“It’s not just this that works – it’s product placement combined with that billboard, combined with that ad in the elevator when I’m going to work, combined with that thing that I see when I’m pumping gas at the gas station, combined with when I get in taxi with Taxi TV, and the thing comes on – it’s the ubiquitousness of the message. It’s the fact that everywhere you go, somebody keeps hitting you over the head with ‘you need this, you want this, you should get this, you should see this.’ And then at some point, when you’re there at a point of purchase, whether it’s online or in the store, at some point, that chipping away is going to make you go – ‘you know what? I’m going to get that.’ How much impact does that have? You don’t know, but it does have an impact.”
Hm, what doesn’t work?
“When somebody advertises on a cocktail napkin in a bar, and they’re like ‘we bought all those bar napkins and sales didn’t go up’ – that obviously didn’t work,” he explains. “The things that don’t work is when you start to target people who are outside of your niche – outside of your core demo, outside of your audience. You have to play to the crowd, no matter what you’re selling, no matter what it is. I think that ultimately that all that messaging and marketing reinforces that.”
Here’s my pre-Derby pic with Morgan Spurlock that day:
Click here to read more about my day with Morgan Spurlock. He talks about the future of advertising and the future of his films. Plus, the director who rocketed to fame with Super Size Me shares weight-loss tips after a decadent dessert. Pick up The Original Mane ‘n Tail Shampoo, which is featured in Morgan’s documentary POM Wonderful Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold.