Mr. Right-Click and I saw Morgan Spurlock’s The Greatest Movie Ever Sold this weekend, a “documentary” about the practices and procedures governing product placement and sponsorship in movies/entertainment. The premise of the movie is that Spurlock approached the movie with the intent to have the entire thing financed by product placement while keeping the entire process transparent for the audience (FYI: technically, the movie is called POM Presents The Greatest Movie Ever Sold, because POM Pomegranate juice paid $1 million to have naming rights of the movie). It’s a funny movie and though it doesn’t necessarily teach you anything you don’t already know, it does expose the specifics of product placement sausage making in a way that you don’t usually get to see.
The movie reminded me of the product placement experiment I conducted about a year ago on this blog, that ended ultimately with me deciding that product placement does not work for my blog. I am still struggling to articulate the reasons for this, and I think Spurlock comes to a similar conclusion at the end of his project (though it is never explicitly stated). The odd thing about the mechanics of sponsorship in this movie is that while on the one hand I left it feeling like Spurlock might have damaged his brand (however slightly) by making the film (his brand is fairly tied up with integrity and thumbing his nose at corporate America, so to walk around in a NASCAR-inspired sponsored suit — even tongue-in-cheek — might be something that turns out badly for him), I also left feeling a degree of increased goodwill for the brands who signed on with Spurlock for this movie, because they were willing to take a chance on an unconventional idea/project. For me, I worry that Spurlock comes out of this thing with some of his integrity compromised (as much as I don’t want that to be the case), whereas the brands are clear winners. That seems wrong to me, but it also is in keeping with what I see happening in blog sponsorship, so I thought I’d try to figure out why. See below.
1. Once you open the door to sponsorship and product placement, you give up a little of the control you have over your content.
Most people who run sponsored campaigns on their blogs will be quick to tell you that they do not change their content in order to do so, and I believe this is absolutely the case usually. The problem is, what happens when you invite a sponsor into the fold is that there are ways they influence you that happen on levels that are almost unintelligible — ways in which they are filtering your creative voice almost without you knowing it. There is a scene in The Greatest Movie Ever Sold in which Spurlock is talking to executives from Ban deodorant (the first sponsor to sign on to the project) and they say they don’t need to influence the content directly, except that they would like to ensure that Ban is not portrayed in a negative light. This seems reasonable, right? Because why would they pay money to have their product portrayed badly? So Spurlock says something like, “Of course not. If you’re paying to be in this movie, I’m going to feel positively toward your brand,” and that makes sense as well. I’m sitting in the audience and I’m thinking, “Wow, *I* feel positively toward Ban deodorant right now because they’re considering this.”
But wait — once Ban signs on you have lost some control already: 1) you have to feature Ban in your movie, and how likely is it that you would ever have done that otherwise?; 2) you cannot do anything with Ban that might be construed as being negative, because that will upset the sponsors, and so you’ve already eliminated a large portion of possibilities because they are not likely to be considered “positive” by the sponsors; and 3) you don’t even WANT to portray them negatively, you’ve decided you like this brand to which you were previously neutral just because they are giving you money. How is that artistic freedom? It’s not, even if it’s just a matter of a small degree of control you’ve given up.
2. Once you open the door to sponsorship and product placement, your opportunities start to increase.
Once Spurlock was able to get one sponsor, opportunities started opening up more easily for him. At one point in the movie, he plays a voicemail message from an agent who wants to put him in a prime project that involves heavy corporate sponsorship — an unsolicited offer with big name stars already attached to it. With getting brands to back you, it seems like the hardest sell is the first one — once you get your foot in the door, the rest come much more easily.
3. Once you open the door to sponsorship and product placement, you start to lose perspective.
The flip side of the increased opportunities is that the line between getting paid and “selling out” starts to get blurrier. Spurlock was shaken by the unsolicited offer because he realized how attractive it sounded to him now, when just a few months before he was inspired to do a whole project based on the sliminess of product placement practices. He states, “How are you supposed to say ‘no’ to that?” when he plays the voicemail message containing the project offer. But a few months before, he would never have considered it in the first place.
4. Brands have more to gain from these partnerships, content creators have the most to lose.
I think that what happens with this stuff is that you go into a movie with low expectations for how a brand is going to come off. Basically, unless they do something egregious, you’re at worst going to feel neutrally for a brand. At best, you might walk away from a product placement feeling better toward a brand: you’re going in at zero, so it takes very little to improve.
But with content creators (filmmakers, bloggers, etc.), we presumably go in with a higher opinion and it takes very little to lower that opinion. Surprisingly little. Does this mean bloggers or filmmakers shouldn’t ever use product placement? I’m not sure — but I do think that they have more to lose than the brands that are paying them.
Hey everybody, we’ve got a new featured blogger ad up and running! Please check out Josie’s ad for Yum Yucky in the sidebar ASAP! If you’d like to participate in the ABDPBT Featured Bloggers Program, please email me and I’ll put you on the waiting list.