Film

The Fraudulent Health Startup that Got an Acclaimed Documentarian to Make Its Ads

How can we reconcile Errol Morris’s stated mission of pursuing the truth with him helping to promote Theranos?

From The Inventor (screenshot by Hyperallergic)

The story of Elizabeth Holmes and her failed health startup Theranos has permeated public discourse this year, thanks to Alex Gibney’s new HBO documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley. Inspired by her fear of needles, Holmes, a Stanford dropout, made it her goal to revolutionize medical technology through home blood tests and branded wellness centers in pharmacies. However, issues with the actual science behind this vision came to light in a 2015 Wall Street Journal article, prompting a fraud investigation by the SEC. In 2018, Theranos settled in district court, agreeing to a fine of half a million dollars, the return of millions of company shares, and measures barring Holmes from the leadership board of any public company for a decade.

Since The Inventor was made without Holmes’s cooperation, Gibney substitutes insider materials with footage from a variety of sources, some of which was shot by fellow documentarian Errol Morris. As part of a multi-million-dollar deal Theranos struck with ad agency TWBA\Chiat\Day, Morris directed several commercials for the company. TWBA\Chiat\Day was previously behind some of Apple’s most well-known ads, including the Morris-helmed “Switch” campaign. Gibney asked for Morris’s input, but he declined to comment, reportedly telling Gibney that he “couldn’t make him talk,” even saying, “For God, there is no off the record, and he can be a very unforgiving person.” This reticence runs contrary to Morris’s stridently expressed beliefs about the pitfalls of paradigmatic thinking and relativism. With the benefit of hindsight, reviewing Morris’s Theranos commercials sheds light on the contradictions in the ideology that serves as the bedrock for his work.

Morris is perhaps the most vocal opponent of the writings of Thomas Kuhn, specifically The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In his book-length diss track The Ashtray, Morris rejects Kuhn’s theories on the incommensurability of the past and present, instead championing the empiricism of logician Bertrand Russell: “If you are strapped into an electric chair … there would be nothing relative about it. Suppose you are innocent. Suppose you were never at the crime scene. Suppose you were home in bed. Would you be satisfied with the claim that there is no definitive answer to the question of whether you’re guilty or innocent?” Rationalist philosophy informs the moral dicta of Morris’s work. The Thin Blue Line forces witnesses in a murder trial to reckon with their false testimonies, Mr. Death shames a Holocaust denier, A Wilderness of Error parses “mistakes” made by a federal court in a homicide case, and so on.

Morris’s long-held fascination with transparency extends to his aesthetic proclivities. His interview style famously features his subjects looking directly into the camera as they speak. In his own words, this creates “the true first person,” direct communication with the viewer. His commercials for Theranos are no exception, but in this case, the opposite effect is achieved. The studio lights bore into the pupils of each interviewee (eerily, while they get their blood taken out of frame). The light never escapes the subjects’ eyes, almost as if they are hypnotized. A commercial presenting Holmes on her own is the most disturbing of all. Her head lolls from side to side as the lights emphasize her already-wide eyes. Her gaze and composure feel unnatural. A friend described this short as “some RoboCop shit.”

In her Vulture article “Why the Errol Morris Shade in Alex Gibney’s The Inventor Is So Brutal,” Emily Yoshida theorizes that “Gibney’s decision to include … Morris’s footage mercilessly implicates the very idea of seeking truth,” referencing the “pursuit of truth” that has been Morris’s modus operandi since the ’70s. However, Gibney’s choice cuts far deeper than that. Morris’s willingness to work with Theranos illustrates the flaws in his contrarianism. He delights in upending codified models. Based on these commercials and their behind-the-scenes material, it appears he saw Holmes as a kindred spirit in this regard. It seems he was so caught up in her pie-in-the-sky claims that he ignored his own standards for logic and rational thought.

Morris’s denial of any culpability for his role in promoting a fraudulent company is a frustrating shirking of accountability, and it’s not the first time he’s done this. He directed a series of spots for AIG in the early 2000s about the nature of risk, but “risk” was exactly what led that company to help bring about the 2008 financial meltdown. When confronted with criticism over this campaign by John DeFore of The Washington Post in 2011, he was flippant: “Instead of offering remorse for burnishing the image of a corporation that helped trigger a global financial crisis, Morris focuses on a single creative disagreement he and AIG had.” Morris has authored ads for Nike as well, although he’s surely aware of their use of sweatshop labor. It’s ironic that Morris, a master of extracting answers from everyone from speech therapists to serial killers, cannot adequately answer for such questionable actions. According to his own philosophy, “It seemed like a good idea at the time” is an inadequate defense.

From The Inventor (screenshot by Hyperallergic)
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