“Hey Portal, call Dad.”
That is the second line in the season 11 premiere of ABC’s long-running hit Modern Family. The scene features the Dunphy’s youngest daughter, Alex, calling home from a research station in Antarctica. The call arrives at the Dunphy household in familiar sitcom-ian chaos, but mom Claire manages to hear the distinctive ringtone and has the presence of mind to say, “Okay Portal, answer.”
It’s the kind of product placement—or to use the buzzier term brand integration—that almost feels like a satire of the practice itself. I say almost, because we know that would require a sliver of self-awareness on either the brand or network’s part.
Instead, it actually feels like a shining, clunky example of all our worst assumptions about marketers wedged into a beloved show kicking off its swan song season.
The rest of the episode is peppered with similar Portal-like calls from Alex to various family members, though thankfully with no more awkwardly specific Portal peddling. But the damage is already done.
Look, I’m no purist. With the rise of DVRs and people’s general distaste for the commercial break having grown over the past 20 years, brands and broadcast networks have been forced to find more creative ways to sell us soap, cereal, beer, and insurance. The entertainment economy churns on, and that means more experiments in how to get products seen without inducing mass dry heaves.
There have been successes, believe it or not, like when AB InBev slid its beers into House of Cards. Or Pepsi’s elaborately made itself a plot point on Fox’s Empire. Or when Flamin’ Hot Cheetos went to jail on Orange Is the New Black.
In fact, Modern Family had its own groundbreaking branded episode, back in its sixth season in 2015. Called “Connection Lost,” the entire episode was shot on iPhones and iPads—and was essentially a 30-minute Apple ad. But—and it’s a big but—the way the show used our everyday tech tools and social networks throughout felt consistent with how many of us live IRL. There were no awkward brand call-outs. The whole story takes place on Claire’s laptop screen. Stuck at the airport, she flips between reading emails, iMessaging, FaceTime, but also non-Apple bits like Facebook, Pinterest, and Google Maps. There’s even a rare double brand appearance when an Amazon order arrives while the family is FaceTiming. Is it a bit much? Sure. But the story execution was still juuuuust this side of the believable borderline, because it stayed relatively close to how the people watching actually live.
That’s where this Facebook Portal pollution falls flat.
First, it landed just days after the company unveiled its newest Portal products, making it feel part of a coordinated marketing campaign (which, of course, it is). Second, of the 4 million people who watched the show on Wednesday, how many have ever used a Portal? According to IDC, the first generation Portal released late last year shipped just 54,000 units. That lack of scale and familiarity is what made “Okay Portal, answer” so jarring.
You can’t invent a brand’s cultural relevance. Like when NBC tried to make it seem natural that its billionaire adventurer on the short-lived series The Philanthropist would actually ask his assistant to Bing something.
In Modern Family‘s 2015 Apple-soaked episode, a character changes their Facebook relationship status. It felt natural because, well, billions of people have done that very thing—as opposed to 54,000. If you want to introduce a new product in a show, why not use the characters as audience avatars, discovering and trying it out (as naturally as possible) for themselves instead of pretending that Portaling is just something we do now. If Facebook really wanted to get creative, they’d have the Dunphys debate the creepiness of letting the social network into their home with cameras and mics.
Branded content has been debated, tweaked, and evolved for years, but the golden rules remain: Don’t annoy the audience or insult their intelligence—and don’t get in the way of the story. Look no further than Patagonia’s films, or Netscout’s role in Werner Herzog’s award-winning 2016 doc Lo and Behold, and even National Geographic and P&G’s six-part doc series Activate, which debuted earlier this month.
While we’re all trying to decide how much we’re willing to spend on the growing number of streaming subscriptions available, and we’re still making sure to fast-forward or leave the room during the commercial breaks, brands will continue to push, prod, and poke their way into our shows in new ways to get in front of our eyes.
But marketers beware: If the balance between commerce and creative tilts too far in the wrong direction, those eyeballs won’t just be skipping the ads, it’ll be the whole damn show.