mandag 7. mai 2012

Spurlock's method - making businesses more innovative

This is a translation of my blog post at - so if you read Norwegian you'd probably prefer that.

The film "The greatest movie ever sold" by Morgan Spurlock, is a great example of collaborations between arts and business - a topic I worked on some years ago. He wondered how product placement affects the artistic expression, especially when it seems like the film or television series will only be made to sell things - not to tell stories. Makers are dependent on commercial financing, but is it possible to make films and television that retains its true expression in a world where advertising before the movie or the occasional TV series no longer is possible?

Here we touch upon a topic that often needs to be discussed in collaborations between arts and business. The economy is morally grounded, and artists do not want to make money in ways that are contrary to their values. The movie highlights the value debate, since films so often reflect reality better than my research reports. (It's kind of what art does).

For many centuries, innovation was almost exclusively reserved for the Arts, says Siri Meyer (2007), in her book on the innovative human. The term innovation was adopted by economists at the same time as the tempo of business has increased. “Innovative business” is really a contradiction-in-terms: innovation requires such risk that it is difficult to justify it within a standard corporate budget.

On the one hand, radical innovation might be devastating for existing business, as prescribed under the phenomenon of creative destruction. On the other hand, it is impossible to plan for radical innovation - it is characterized precisely by the fact that it is unpredictable. Nevertheless, there are the many examples of those who successfully navigate uncharted waters - it is possible to facilitate innovation processes even where it is difficult to imagine the results. In recent years, one of the strategies for encouraging innovative thinking has been to encourage artist collaborations with industry.

In a report we wrote in SINTEF (Ervik and others, 2009), on cooperation between artists and businesses, we documented successful examples, where it was largely a win-win situations. One actor on the arts side said:

"Can you through the business, a business that thinks differently- A business that is professional and innovative in its own genre - create art which is also innovative, also being ambitious and innovative in their own field ... "

Yet collaborations are not without its problems. They are always risky, and must be based on trust. An example where the result is good art, but not necessarily a foundation for further cooperation is Libera’s "LEGO Concentration Camp" project. He got free LEGO bricks, and made box sets that looked like LEGO's own, but with a controversial theme.

On the other hand, an artist who is too servile might lose credibility. A recent example is the film version of Suzanne Collins' novels Hunger Games. The books are a criticism against a regime that allows extreme displays of power, including a game where children kill each other as a pastime for the rich. Then comes the movie, the theme is the same, but now with full on marketing. Included in this are the fashion collections: someone make money on helping you obtain the oppressor look, others if you choose the rebel-look. Whatever you choose, you are in the palm of the hand of capitalism.

Buy the look of the winning team!
These two examples – the Lego exhibition that is recognized within the art world, the Hunger games is a box-office success – they work in different ways. However, none show a mutual respect between arts and business.

Is it really possible to have a collaboration between artists and industry on a large scale? The danger may what this artist states: that all businesses are interested in the new methods, but not because they are interested in the values at all.

"A project ... where they saw the creative capital of the people who had graduated from visual art, music, theater, dance, design, and where you ... washed out the method as gold for conducting project work, consulting work for the business community. "

This project has similarities to Spurlock's fear: that the commercial world uses movies for their own ends, and in the process possibly killing the art.

The setout of his movie is that he wishes to make a film in which he explores and reveals how branding, advertising and product placement affects artistic productions. To test this, he wants to get their film financed solely by means of branding, advertising and product placement. It is a very funny documentary - can you keep your integrity even if you sell out everything?

He has given himself a challenge that gives him a lot to shoot - to get 22 sponsors to join, he contacts 600. He goes to meetings and is laughed at, and he does a significant amount of preparatory work for each meeting. Between interviews with companies, he interviews celebrities, advertisers and academics who speak up about the relationship between art and commerce in the film world. Some of the interviews are made in places defined by the sponsors. He interviews both in the pizza restaurant, next to a gas pump and even on a plane! This is exciting for us as viewers, because it means we can have a go at “product placement spotting” in practice if we are able to link the meetings he has had and the film locations.

The three main sponsors also get 30-second advertising spots in the middle of the film. The audience laughs, because it is an untamed and charming protagonist who says the same as a picture-perfect model could have done. It is not certain that we would have liked it just as well if he had hired actors to do the advertising.

Apropos tamed - one of the funniest products he deals with is the shampoo for both horses and humans, "Mane and Tail." His idea for a 30 second spot is too good to let go of, even when "Mane and Tail" do not want to pay. He sits in the bath with her son and shampoo, the camera zooms out to full bath and a small pony appears, also up in the bathtub, where they look a bit special extended family. I think immediately that Spenol is a variant of the product in the Norwegian shelf, which unfortunately no longer has the slogan "Equally suitable to ands and fingers as teats and udders." Who would not have put pictures to that slogan?

It is striking how much he is kidding with the products, and still treats them with respect. It remains an open question: would he be kidding with the products even more if he had complete freedom? And the movie would have been better because of it?

In the middle of the film is a change. It is becoming clear that the film will be made, and the roles are suddenly reversed. The contracts state that the condition to get money is that he sells a certain number of tickets and make a certain number of media impressions. Thus, Spurlock is now selling itself in a different way - he is a buyer of advertising space in schools, stadiums and other public buildings. A priceless moment is when one of the Spurlock staff presents the film and in the background there is a power point presentation with graphs and scientific evidence that this is a project that pays off.
Spurlock is definitely able to speak the same language as his partners. It makes him a good candidate for cooperation. When the movie comes to an end we get to know the extent of his project. He rolls out advertising and merchandise by the meters and a several hundred meter long caravan of Mini Morrises and semi-trailers roll past. Precisely because of product placement, he gets more attention than he would otherwise have done. It is ultimately a win-win situation. The film is funded, and there are many who get to know about it.

We as Norwegians do not have access to half of the products sold, and there are no shops, restaurants or hotels that have Spurlock cardboard figure, glass or plastic key cards. Thus we lose the actual advertising message, and we have to consider whether we have been affected by it. Spurlock has been committed to the program to say that he wants us to buy the products, but he wants us to feel a bit divided when we do.

Spurlock has been open that he runs a double play, and it is therefore difficult to say that he has lost his credibility as a critic. He redefines the project so that he retains control. He creates awareness of product placement in a fun way so that it is worth spending time on it, even for those not already critical of consumer society. This film should have a broad fan base.

The film is circular. There is constantly talk about what will be in the film. We get to join watching how the boat is constructed whilst he’s rowing on. The structure rests on the movie basically being a ridiculous idea, an idea that suddenly assume texture and sets its own requirements for the filmmaker. The deals are sealed in ink, but the artistic project retains its power.

His project is interesting from an innovation perspective, especially how he puts himself at risk. Despite the fact that we sit and watch the movie that is obviously done, we wonder how far he had to go to get it right.

Nevertheless, I think that Spurlock could have worked with his sponsors further (than shown in the film). The contracts specify what is necessary to make the companies satisfied. All the redefinition and border blasting takes place on the artistic side. Some collaborations between people in the arts and people in business (I say it like this, for it is the people I'm concerned with, both places) actually create new practices for both artists and business people.

I see the possibility that Morgan Spurlock could have used his film to create reflection and new practices in the participating companies. He could have offered a course in innovation based on his own methods: practicing to dare to fail, practicing to redefine the boundaries of what is possible, with local projects with as impossible starting points and as amazing results. And still within the limits of what “sensible” companies should engage with.

It would, of course, extend the artistic skills even further, and may end in horror picture to wash out the gold from the world of art to make it commercially edible. As a researcher I would think it exciting to see the frames that are selected regardless. I cannot wait to see more art educators, art consultants and other shades of artists  who use their skills in organizations. For artists who have to go beyond their usual roles, this is a challenge that must be solved with ingenuity and creativity. Not only must they guard their credibility to the art world, but they would also need to convince businesses that it is a good idea. For even if the concept of innovation has made its way into the plans of the masses, it is a far cry before many dare to take other measures than the competition to translate their plans into practice.

Literature (Norwegian only):

Meyer, S. (2007): Det innovative mennesket, Oslo: Fagbokforlaget.

Ervik, K., G: Håkonsen, K. Skarholt, M. Pettersen Buvik (2009): Kunst og næring -Betingelser og bruksområder for kunsttjenester i bedrifters verdiskapende prosesser. Rapport på oppdrag fra Nærings- og handelsdepartementet.  SINTEF Rapport A9117. Trondheim,  SINTEF Teknologi og Samfunn 

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