I enjoyed this thought-provoking 2004 documentary. It's fascinating not only to watch the construction of an enormous, elaborate, expensive hoax in Prague, but also to observe consumerism run amok, particularly in a relatively new capitalist economy. We're forced to ask ourselves how this stunt informs American society, and to admit the trenchant point it makes about the expansion of the European Union (which the Czechs were soon to approve) as well as the larger issues of runaway globalization. The film encourages both reflection and discussion.
The filmmakers, students at a film school, used a government grant and labor donated by an advertising firm to arrange what they called "an experiment." They produced a spectacular, full-scale marketing campaign, a media blitz that saturated the airwaves with radio and television ads and blanketed the city with flyers and billboards and newsprint. The subject of the campaign was the opening of "Czech Dream," a fictional "hypermarket," which is the European equivalent of an American "big box" store. Commercials were cast and filmed, songs were written and recorded, and photo shoots and focus groups were held. Highly technical research was conducted that tracked the eye movements of consumers as they perused faux advertisements which told them "Don't come" and "Don't buy" but promised unbelievably low prices and "opening day surprises for everyone."
The cleverness of the conceit is encapsulated in the contrast between the mournful traditional round "Hey, ho, nobody home / Meat nor drink nor money have I none / Yet will I be merry," sung by a family of shoppers, and the hilarious lyrics to the campaign's theme song, sung by a children's choir:
"The world's yours so take it
All you need is to want it
It will be a nice big bash
But if you've got no cash
Get a loan and scream
I want to fulfill my dream
Don't be a sloth
Come grab a cart
Don't blow it off
Watch the Czech Dream start."
During the film, we attend contentious meetings with the advertising team in which they argue about the extent of the fraud they are perpetrating: is it an unscrupulous scam or a harmless practical joke? We watch uncomfortable interviews with team members who try to explain what ethical lines they are willing or unwilling to cross and why they are participating in a campaign that they consider manipulative at best.
On the day of the big event, around 2000 people show up. They trek across a field to find nothing but scaffolding behind a colorful 10x100-meter canvas, and their eagerness turns to confusion, fury, and amusement. In the end, most of them are remarkably philosophical, becoming resigned to what might have ended in fistfights or lawsuits in the U.S. A passionate debate ensues in the press. As wistful music plays and fake ads are replaced by real ones for cigarettes and credit cards, we are left, like the Czechs, to work out what it all means.
Here's my takeaway: All advertising is a kind of lie, and we are all duped by it to some extent, just as we are frequently fooled by the promises of politicians who are forever selling us a bright, shining future. Yes, the filmmakers tricked and angered some people, but I think the brief disappointment of a couple thousand Czechs on a sunny morning in May of 2003 was worthwhile after all is said and done. Their indignation pales in comparison to the ire everyone should feel toward the conmen who deceive billions of people year after year, roping the poor into unsupportable mortgages, for example, or waving the flag to justify pointless, immoral wars.
The crass commercialization and materialization of our cultures goes far beyond the slogans we read, the jingles we hum, and the logos we wear. It forces television networks to broadcast unmitigated garbage in pursuit of higher ratings, it pervades and prostitutes the cinema with product placements, it reduces us from individuals to nameless consumers and sources of profit, and it subtly and not-so-subtly promotes both shallowness in our politics and envy in our daily lives. I promise you'll think about this movie the next time you go shopping at a Wal-Mart or a gigantic suburban mall. It should especially give you pause as you line up for Black Friday sales after your Thanksgiving dinner. It may even make you think twice before you cast your next vote.