Tonight, Modern Family takes place entirely on a MacBook Pro. The episode centers on lead mom Claire Dunphy’s laptop screen as she attempts to track down her unruly daughter, Hayley, by pinging with other members of the family through iMessage, FaceTime, and other communication apps.
Early reviews praise the episode as a fun take on digital communication, and a good deployment of an increasingly prevalent “screens on a screen” approach. But critics have also grumbled about the show’s unabashed Apple promotion. Steven Levitan, the show’s creator, hired a motion graphic artist to replicate a Mac’s interface, and the episode’s video chats were filmed on iPhones, iPods, and Macs—all provided by Apple.
Product placement has been around even before ET followed that iconic trail of Reese’s Pieces, so it’s nothing new to get upset about. But tonight’s Modern Family shows just how blurred the line between advertising and entertainment has become. While we don’t want products shoved down our throats when we watch television, we do want to believe in the fictional world we see—and what modern family doesn’t own iPhones? Today’s advertisements are subtler than ever, yet they affect us far more than we’d ever realize.
“Even though Apple’s not paying for it, it’s still a type of influence that the marketers are creating. So we should treat it just like we would any other form of persuasion that’s trying to get us to want to buy something.”
Product placement is effective because it taps into a deep-seated drive to relate to our peers, says Cristel Russell, a marketing researcher at American University. It’s in our nature to develop emotional connections to celebrities and characters we like, so advertisers have learned to capitalize on this tendency by negotiating seamless ways to tie brands to famous people. James Bond, for example, drives an Aston Martin, while Kramer eats Junior Mints. We’re less aware of product pandering in instances like these, Russell says, because, unlike commercials, the characters we relate to “influence you as if they were your real friends.”
It’s common to scoff at the notion that advertising has any real impact, but there’s a long history of empirical work suggesting as much. Russell, for instance, has done cross-sectional experiments in which she asks people about what television shows they watch, what characters they relate to, and how they feel about particular brands. She has consistently found that people like brands more when the characters they related to were associated with them. She got the same result in a recent study that had people look at an Entourage poster with products photoshopped into it.
Well-done product placement may even snag our allegiance when our guard is already up. Last year, Ian Zimmerman, a psychologist at the University of Missouri, showed two test groups a clip from Friends that featured Nike ads. One group was shown the clip alone, while the other watched the clip after Zimmerman specifically “primed” them to be on the lookout for product placements (he had them watch a snippet of American Idol and told them to pay attention to Coke ads). As expected, the first group liked Nike more after. But the second group surprised Zimmerman: Even though they said they were less inclined toward the brand after viewing the clip, an implicit association test he gave them revealed that, on a subconscious level, they actually still felt closer to it.
“If you ask anybody, they will always deny that advertising messages are influencing them,” Russell says. “But we know very well that it is, especially messages that are not necessarily seen as persuasive attempts.”
The extent to which Modern Family actually intends to boost Apple’s appeal with tonight’s episode is certainly debatable. Apple doesn’t pay for television spots, and Levitan has said the inspiration for the show came from a video chat with his daughter, totally unrelated to Apple. But as Mashable writer Christina Warren says on the latest This Week In Tech podcast: “[Apple] might not have paid per se, but they’re certainly getting—especially when you consider syndication—a humongous amount of advertising out of this. So there’s a quid pro quo happening here at some level. Even if it’s not a direct payment exchange, it’s ridiculous to think there wasn’t any sort of conversation had about this.”
“There would come a point where I would say you could over-regulate, where all you’d see are all of those obviously fake products, like the white can that says 'beer.' That takes you out of that narrative world.”
Either way, the trend of integrating products makes Russell and others uneasy. It’s one thing to grab a few extra sales, but she worries product placement in the context of realistic shows has such an influence that it risks distorting people’s actual perception of the world around them. “It’s shaping the way we see reality,” she says. “If a show is too much slanted toward a brand, or even just at the very basic level too commercialized, we have a perception of the world as just one big advertisement.”
That, of course, is an ideal situation for a company like Apple. A brand reaches an advertisement peak when it becomes so ubiquitous that it begins to weave itself into the cultural fabric—when, in Apple’s case, it becomes an almost-essential tool in the way we interact. The danger of what Modern Family is doing, then, in Russell’s view, is that it not only reflects the fact that a lot of people use Apple products to communicate, but that it actually amplifies an impression that Apple products are the only product worth using to talk to each other. In other words, it spins the wheels of a commercial feedback loop: Apple products are used every day, which makes Modern Family want to feature them, which, in turn, only makes Apple products used more.
“Even though Apple’s not paying for it, it’s still a type of influence that the marketers are creating,” Russell says. “So we should treat it just like we would any other form of persuasion that’s trying to get us to want to buy something.”
Can anything be done to curb this influence? Russell advocates media literacy. Zimmerman, the University of Missouri psychologist, advocates regulation. Limit the number of product placements on a show, he suggests, because it’s “a little naive” to rely on the advertising industry to regulate itself. “I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of regulating business, but to those individuals I would say regulation is the only thing that prevents tobacco companies from targeting children with advertising,” he says.
But Zimmerman is also quick to point out regulation’s limits. “There would come a point where I would say you could over-regulate, where all you’d see are all of those obviously fake products, like the white can that says 'beer,'" he says. "That takes you out of that narrative world.”
And that’s the crux of Modern Family’s issue: Apple products may not constitute our reality as much as Russell suggests the company may hope they do, but they’re still a very real part of it. If Modern Family wants to capture that reality—and if we want to allow ourselves to get sucked into it—featuring touchstones of the real world, like the screens we’re accustomed to looking at every day, is only going to help. This doesn’t mean the influence of product placement isn’t a problem we shouldn’t confront, but it does mean there are enough competing interests that there aren’t easy solutions.
Except for one. “The only way to completely avoid product placement is just to not watch the program at all,” Zimmerman points out. “But most people aren’t going to want to do that.”