September 30, 2023

Advertising: Film on Branded Content Examines a Blurred Line

You could describe the documentary from Sony Pictures Classics, “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” as a cinematic version of the phenomenon discussed on an episode of “Mad Men”: “Like the Land O’Lakes butter has that Indian girl sitting holding a box, and it has a picture of her on it, holding a box, with a picture of her on it, holding a box.”

In this instance, Morgan Spurlock — who directed and appears in the documentary and wrote it with Jeremy Chilnick — seeks to pull back the curtain on a trend called branded content, which is reshaping popular culture by blurring the line between entertainment and advertising in realms like movies, TV shows, songs, video games and online gaming.

Mr. Spurlock, known for his caustic film about fast food, “Super Size Me,” decided to demonstrate how branded entertainment works by, well, demonstrating how it works. “The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which opens in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, chronicles Mr. Spurlock’s effort to persuade advertisers to pay him $1.5 million to make a movie in which “everything from top to bottom is branded from beginning to end,” as the trailer declares.

“That was cool about it, he opened up the process,” said Ben Silverman, the longtime proponent of branded content like “The Biggest Loser” and “The Restaurant” during his stints at NBC, Reveille and, currently, the Electus unit of IAC/InterActiveCorp. “There’s a lot of transparency.”

“Morgan did a great job,” said Mr. Silverman, who appears in the film and has seen it twice, “because he walked the line you have to walk when you’re trying to entertain people as a storyteller and you’re trying to get your movie funded.”

A score of advertisers agreed to finance Mr. Spurlock. They include Ban deodorant, Hyatt Hotels and Resorts, JetBlue Airways, Mane ’n Tail shampoo, Merrell shoes,, Old Navy, the Sheetz chain of convenience stores and Trident gum.

A juice brand paid $1 million to be the presenting sponsor, hence the film’s official title: “Pom Wonderful Presents the Greatest Movie Ever Sold.”

“I have to tell you, I didn’t know what to expect,” said Richard Kirshenbaum, chairman of Kirshenbaum Bond Senecal Partners, part of MDC Partners, who appears in the film with his client, Ban.

Mr. Spurlock “asks a lot of pointed questions” about branded content, said Mr. Kirshenbaum, who has seen the documentary. “He’s hit a cultural nerve.”

At the same time, “we’re all very pleased with where we netted out in it,” Mr. Kirshenbaum said, because “he honored his promises to the brands in the movie.”

Ban paid $50,000 for a sponsorship that includes multiple onscreen placements for Ban products and the inclusion of the brand’s logo on a suit jacket worn by Mr. Spurlock. The choice of apparel suggests the wry manner in which Mr. Spurlock makes his case.

“We decided to participate not only because we admire Morgan’s work as a filmmaker but also as a way to show that we don’t take ourselves or the industry so seriously that we can’t have fun,” Karen Frank, vice president for United States skin care marketing at Kao Brands, which makes Ban, wrote in an e-mail.

“We hope people enjoy the movie as much as we did,” said Ms. Frank, who also appears in it.

Other industry figures speaking onscreen include Jonathan Bond, Mr. Kirshenbaum’s former agency partner, who now leads Big Fuel, an agency specializing in branded content and social media; Tony Seiniger, the movie marketing executive; Norm Marshall, chief executive of a leading branded-content agency, Norm Marshall Associates; the publicist Michael Levine; Bob Garfield, formerly ad critic for the trade publication Advertising Age; and Rick Kurnit, a lawyer known for work in advertising law.

“The premise of the movie is a wonderful conceit,” said Mr. Kurnit, adding that he had not seen it yet but “nine of my partners” at Frankfurt Kurnit Klein Selz had.

“I think there’ll be a lot of interest in it” among moviegoers who are not part of the ad industry, Mr. Kurnit said, because “there really is an issue people are interested in here, the commercialization of our entertainment.”

“We’re at a crossroads in terms of what people understand about” branded content, he added. “In the beginning, people thought it was interesting, but didn’t necessarily think a brand had anything to do with it. Now, they believe there’s some business going on here.”

Those outside the ad industry who comment on branded content include the linguist Noam Chomsky; Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies; Ralph Nader; Brett Ratner, the producer; the record executive Antonio Reid; and directors like Peter Berg and Quentin Tarantino.

In a puckish moment in the movie, as Mr. Tarantino is interviewed by Mr. Spurlock, a Ban deodorant stick ostentatiously appears in front of them in a spoof of heavy-handed product placements.

“If brands try to sneak products into story lines, it can come off smelling fishy,” said Dominic Sandifer, president and managing partner at GreenLight Media and Marketing, which creates Web video series for advertisers like American Express.

Branded content “certainly has been done poorly in the past,” said Mr. Sandifer, who does not appear in the film. “It’s a fine line.”

“We advise our clients that it’s brand-funded entertainment, and it’s entertainment foremost,” he added. “When it’s done right, people will choose to engage with it.”

Has Mr. Spurlock done it right? The box office will begin to make its determination this weekend.

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