Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is not likely to go down in history for any of its cinematic achievements. While it is a pleasant diversion that is more entertaining than any of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, more romantic than Titanic, and more profound than Lord of the Rings, the sequel to Night at the Museum is essentially the equivalent of Chinese food. During its brief appearance on large screens in multiplexes across America and its current status as one of those movies that seems to show up one or another of you free cable channels a few times a weeks it qualified as a tasty delight, but you’ll be hungry for something more substantial an hour later. There is one thing about Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian that history has ensured will forever encase it within the trophy case of the business part of show business.
It was the first movie to feature human being as product placement.
The Marx Brothers movie Love Happy is considered by many to be the first movie to ever consciously engage in the practice of product placement as we know it today. ( Read this article to find out more. ) Product placement is the placement of a commercial product into a movie in exchange for a fee. In other words, it is a commercial transaction in no way differentiated from advertising that interrupts your favorite television show. There is a difference between a character drinking Mountain Dew Throwback because the actor grew up drinking Mountain Dew sweetened with cane sugar rather than high fructose corn syrup and a character drinking Mountain Dew Throwback because Pepsi paid half a million dollars for the privilege. The iconic example of product placement was Reese’s Pieces and E.T. The punch line there, of course, is that M&Ms passed on the deal because they didn’t want their precious little candy to be connected with a silly little space alien movie. Of such decisions are individual careers ruined and entire industries transformed.
Product placement up to Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian had always involved commodities that anyone, relatively speaking, can go into a store and buy. Whether that be Reese’s Pieces in E.T. or Mini Cooper in The Italian Job, product placement has been about product. It might well have seemed that this would always be the case for those who have never read their Karl Marx, but for those of us who are genuinely aware of the pitfalls, flaws, and failure of the capitalist system, we knew it was only a matter of time before product placement involved human beings.
The human commodities that were bought and paid for in Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian and that have forever changed the playing field of product placement were the Jonas brothers. The Jonas brothers, you see, provide the voices of the little flying cherubs who sing really awful songs at inappropriate moments in the sequel to Night at the Museum. But wait, I hear you saying, how is the use of the Jonas brothers any different from the use of Amy Adams or Hank Azaria? Good question. And here is the answer.
Amy Adams and Hank Azaria are proven talents who will or have been around for years. They are trained actors who paid their dues and have showcased their talents to critical acclaim and awards. The Jonas brothers, by contrast, were at the time Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian was made mere commodity. Endowed with the kind of lackluster and mediocre talent that is the very backbone of shows like American Idol, the Jonas Brothers just another in the long line of manufactured pop acts made wildly popular by young girls not yet experienced enough to develop a discriminating taste in music.
What was most surprising about the heavy dose of Jonas Brothers within the storyline of Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian at the time–and even more so in the years since–is that they were handed this high-profile opportunity in a big screen follow-up to a wildly successful movie despite the fact that their 3-D movie tanked in historical proportions, their new Disney Channel series premiered to shockingly low ratings, and when given an actual opportunity to prove they were ready for the big leagues by performing alongside legendary Stevie Wonder at the Grammy Awards they were shown clearly forgetting the lyrics to “Superstition.” In other words, the Jonas brothers did not seem in any immediately identifiable fashion to be worthy of appearing in a movie alongside such co-stars who had proven themselves worthy either through consistent commercial success or universal critical acclaim.
The commodification of human beings is nothing new; it is part of the engine that drives the American economy. Celebrities in America pretty much cease to be fully human when they reach a certain point of popularity, but most achieve humanity before they become commodity. There are a few, however, who are commodities first and human beings second. When Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian was released in theaters, the queen of such celebrities was Paris Hilton. Today, it may be argued that Kim Kardashian sits on the throne. Perhaps besides her reality show co-commodities from Duck Dynasty.
Contrary to popular belief, Monica Lewinsky was not Pres. Clinton’s biggest mistake. No, that award goes to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 which essentially is responsible for the fact that all of American media is controlled by a handful of companies. If ABC was not owned by Disney, you can bet that no adult who was not the parent of a ten year old girl at the time of the film’s release would even know who the Jonas brothers were. Mergers and acquisitions and consolidations have created a topsy-turvy world in which three brothers of no singular distinction whatever, whose career has been one of underperforming and not even meeting substantially lowered expectations, are invited to take part in a movie expected by all to make more in its first week than the Jonas Brothers Movie took in during its entire severely shortened run.
The fact that in the years since Night at the Museum: Battle for the Smithsonian first hit theaters the Jonas Brothers have gone the way of Shaun Cassidy, New Kids on the Block and every other manufactured music act only underlines the point that they ever existed as anything other than as a commodity created by Disney. It is as if Jonas Brothers existed in some strange sort of vacuum where everybody but Disney recognized that you could go to any high school talent show and find three kids at least equally deserving of fame. And yet they kept getting pushed down the collective throats of America. As a commodity the Jonas Brothers seemed to be in never-ending supply despite the fact that no authentic demand for their services ever seem to exist. What is an entertainment act without an audience? They’re Reese’s Pieces and Mini Coopers, that’s what.
Humans as product to be placed.