About 31,000 central Pennsylvanians will soon be living in a joke.
Beginning at 1 p.m. Wednesday, the city of Altoona will change its name to “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” after the latest film by sarcastic documentarian Morgan Spurlock.
The city is changing its name for 60 days to make some money—and to help Spurlock make a point about the proliferation of advertising in American life.
He’ll be in the city for the East Coast premiere of the film, which opened far more conventionally in Los Angeles last week.
Spurlock, who gained more than 20 pounds by eating nothing but McDonald’s food for a month in his 2004 film “Super Size Me,” paid the city $25,000 to rename itself after his movie to underscore its message.
“We live in a place and a time when it seems like everything is brought to you by some sponsor,” Spurlock told The Associated Press. “It starts to become this question of, ‘Where does it end?’”
“Even when I'm standing at a urinal, chances are there's an ad or a video screen staring back at me,” Spurlock said. “That used to be a little ‘me’ time that I had, a little private ‘me’ time that I'd like to have back.”
But the thing about Spurlock’s newest movie is that it's sponsored by companies who've put their name and product images into the film, which argues against such behavior, humorously but strenuously.
Still, the premise didn't stop 15 businesses—including POM Wonderful, a Los Angeles-based juice company that paid $1 million to be title sponsor—from bankrolling the movie with product placements, plus seven other companies that signed on to promote the film after the fact.
A key sponsor is Altoona-based Sheetz, Inc., a family-owned convenience store chain with about 400 locations in Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Stan Sheetz, president and son of founder Bob Sheetz, said he was skeptical when Spurlock first pitched the concept to him, his uncle Louie Sheetz, who handles the chain's marketing, and cousin Joe Sheetz.
That two-hour meeting has been boiled into about six minutes for Sheetz’ “role” in the movie, for which the company paid Spurlock $100,000 with escalator clauses that will likely rise to $250,000 if the film and its subsequent DVD sales perform as projected.
“The money itself was not that big of a risk,” Stan Sheetz said. “The risk is, ‘What does it do to our brand?’”
“I'm hoping people will be saying, ‘Well, that looks like a fun place, those look like cool people, and a brand I want to associate with,” he said.
Sheetz said it was Spurlock's idea to have a secondary premiere, hopefully in a town that would name itself after the movie. Sheetz helped sell the idea in Altoona, and the locals seem enthused by the concept.
“He’s gonna be here in Altoona?” Shirley Benner, 19, said of Spurlock, between bites of her chicken wrap at a Sheetz store last week. She's a fan of “Super Size Me” and said, “That dude’s awesome.”
Another customer, Jeff Tauber, 53, said he had read about the city’s name change in the paper.
“I remember when I first read about it thinking, ‘I'm not wild about that name’—but the more I thought about it, I kind of like it.”
The locals needn’t worry too much. The name change is ceremonial—meaning people won't have to address mail using the movie’s title. The film was in the can before the naming rights deal was approved earlier this month by city council, on which Bruce Kelley serves as vice mayor. The money is going to the police department.
Kelley said he’ll leave it to marketing experts to debate how much advertising is too much, but said the city is solvent and doesn't sell the naming rights to anything other than trees people can pay to have planted in someone's honor.
“So we're all going along with the gag. We’ve become part of the shtick,” Kelley said.
“But you’re not going to see ‘POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold’ on the side of our fire trucks.”