In Depth

Many Brands Bid for Product Placement on 'Modern Family,' but So Few Make It -- Unwilling to Sell Soul of Show, Picky Producers Demand Relevance to Characters and Storylines

By Brian Steinberg
Advertising Age

Advertisers are working furiously to get their goods into the hands of the characters on ABC's "Modern Family." But only a select few will make it, as the producers are wary of turning the nation's best-loved TV family into a clan of shills.

"It is one of the shows where, across a lot of categories, you always hear people saying, 'How can I get involved?'" said Brent Poer, exec VP-managing director at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest.

Although requests from advertisers have ramped up in recent months, "we turn down, I would say, about 90%" of them, said Steven Levitan, one of the comedy's executive producers and creators. "We get offers constantly. We do very few. We try to be extremely selective." Mr. Levitan said the show will attempt one to three of these integrations per season, perhaps more if the story takes the cast to a remote location.

So far, Toyota, Audi and Target have enjoyed prominent placement on the program, with Audi's debut notable because carmakers typically avoid appearing in close proximity to rivals. For each, the appearances have been as hard to miss as a one-liner delivered by cast member Sofia Vergara, who plays trophy wife Gloria Pritchett.

A Toyota Prius, a car with an environmentally conscious bent, appeared in season one of the show. It was driven by Mitchell Pritchett (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who is an environmental attorney. Family chieftain Jay Pritchett (Ed O'Neill) was spotted in recent weeks driving an Audi A8, with another character commenting on what a nice car it was.

And Target got a huge spotlight this past holiday season, thanks to a plotline in which the cast scurries to have an "express Christmas" before separating for the holidays. As part of the show, Claire Dunphy (Julie Bowen) pushes a Target cart through a busy Target store, with logos evident throughout the scene. Whenever the family travels, an airline and hotel or other vacation site often appear as well.

Nearly every show on TV since its early days has had cars, high-tech gadgets or soda cans strewn about. Over the past several years, however, the rise of ad-skipping and the tougher economics of TV have given marketers more reason to be aggressive -- and networks less ability to resist. Yet the case of "Modern Family" is different. While anyone who watches CBS's "Hawaii Five-O" will see characters tearing up the road in sporty Chevrolets, few viewers will use the cars in the same manner. "Modern Family," on the other hand, puts name-brand goods in the hands of characters that incorporate them into their normal routine, in turn demonstrating exactly how most of the buying public might use them.

"Realism is the key -- a blue-collar character cannot be seen wearing Armani, and James Bond can't be seen in a stodgy sedan," said Charles R. Taylor, a professor at the Villanova School of Business.

One marketer whose wares have appeared in "Modern Family" does not want the program to accommodate more products. "It's not your usual sort" of prime-time program, said Scott Keough, chief marketing officer for Audi of America. "This is good, smart, funny stuff."

To make it into "Modern Family," a product's appearance has to be relevant to not only the plot but the characters, Mr. Levitan said. One gadget manufacturer recently approached the show about an appearance, he recalled (without naming the company) but was turned down. The reason: The gizmo has a whopping price tag and competes with many lower-priced rivals. That meant its appearance would not seem true to life, he said. Simply put, the "modern family" wouldn't be likely to buy it.

By contrast, Apple received huge exposure in 2010, even though no money changed hands, when its iPad -- at the time not available to the public -- was made a major part of a plotline in which technophile Phil Dunphy was coveting the new product.

Toyota was interested in getting its cars into the hands of Cam, Claire and the rest from the moment ABC screened the pilot episode of "Modern Family" at its 2009 upfront presentation, said Rob Donnell, president-founder of Brand Arc, a Santa Monica, Calif., brand consultant that helped place Toyota vehicles in the program.

"You have got producers that are willing to do it and know how to make it part of a script," Mr. Donnell said. "It's not just one scene, it's actually played out throughout the entire episode."

Getting into the show isn't cheap. "Modern Family" is one of the 10 most-expensive shows for advertisers this season, and a 30-second spot runs $249,388, according to Ad Age's annual survey of prime-time ad costs. Using back-of-the-envelope math, every second a product appears in the show could be worth slightly more than $8,300.