Modern Family Branding: ABC Finds a Friend in Product Placement


ABC Modern Family #philosophies NAR National Association of Realtors

First of all: they are not realtors, they are Realtors®. It’s more than a simple choice of language use; Realtor® is a federally-registered mark owned by the US National Association of Realtors. That makes the organization’s product placement in an episode of Modern Family make a little more sense.

Viewers of ABC’s hit sitcom Modern Family may not have noticed anything odd about the recent episode where dopey nice guy Realtor Phil Dunphy fights to distinguish himself as a “Realtor” and not a “real estate agent.” But the plot line was sponsored by the  National Association of Realtors, the owner’s of the name.

According to the association president in a statement to the Chicago Tribune, the move by the group aims to “tout their services over licensed agents who are not members of their association, and trying to counter a trend where more consumers are doing their own real estate research to avoid paying fees.”

Those fees are usually in the 6% range and can greatly increase the cost of selling a house, adding cost for the buyer as well. No surprise that owner-facilitated sales—“for sale by owner”—have increased and now account for about 10% of all home sales nationally.

The integration was not all that out of line. Dunphy has been a (bumbling) Realtor on the show for several seasons. The Modern Family integration will be accentuated by Dunphy-themed ads, in which he disseminates his “Phil-osophies,” on ABC and HGTV, home to popular real estate shows like Fixer Upper and The Property Brothers. They will also run online in a related digital marketing campaign.

Modern Family has a rich history of fully integrating product placement. In 2010, an entire episode was crafted around a new iPad. Last October, another episode was made completely on Apple devices, with FaceTiming and extensive product placement throughout.


Apple Product Placement

Retailer Target has been a core figure in the show. A Toyota Prius has also been a plot point in past seasons.

And yet, in 2013, Modern Family producers told Ad Age they turn down 90% of product placement requests and that “We try to be extremely selective.” In that same article, the magazine argued—unconvincingly—that Modern Family is a better product placement platform because it’s “real”:

“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.”

Product placement is successful when it promises exactly the opposite of the “normal routine,” when it promises to deliver on a human need to be special and an deep hope that life to be somehow meaningful and sensical and not random and purposeless. Think about James Bond’s BMW Z3 or the Dodge Chargers in The Fast and Furious franchise? Think cigarettes.

Other associations and groups that that have leveraged product placement successfully also know this. The CIA won itself a favorable depiction in Bin Laden-hunt film Zero Dark Thirty because people wanted to believe it. The Defense Department regularly advises and assists Hollywood with its action films, suggesting changes here and there, in the hopes of a favorable depiction. In one case, during the filming of Battleship, filmmakers were told to cut a character that was “too fat,” putting the Navy in a bad light. The Navy later used the Battleship film’s footage in its recruitment efforts.

And how about diamonds? The De Beers Company leveraged Hollywood to make the diamond, a rock found in the ground, into an enviable and desirable jewel that would somehow, through display, make a person better, more interesting.

So should the National Association of Realtors expect a bump in listings as sellers and buyers decide to go with their trademarked agents over other real estate professionals? As Dumphy himself said last year in character, “Often, people question Realtors’ sincerity.”