Faced with declining overnight ratings and the myriad ways viewers can avoid ads, some brands are beginning to master the art of product placement, and networks are reaping the rewards.
Last season, ABC's hit comedy Modern Family produced an episode shot entirely with Apple products. But that integration—in an episode called "Connection Lost"—was not a paid placement. Tonight, another ABC sitcom incorporates a well-known brand into its storyline, but this time, it gets something in return.
On Black-ish, advertising executive Dre Johnson (played by Anthony Anderson) persuades his client, State Farm Insurance, to sponsor his son's basketball team, the "State Farm Good Neighbors."
The integration, created in partnership with Omnicom agency The Marketing Arm, fits with State Farm's already sizeable footprint in basketball—it's a brand partner of the NCAA, NBA and WNBA. And the insurer actually does sponsor a variety of little league, travel baseball and local basketball teams.
"This just was an extremely natural integration for us," said Ed Gold, advertising director at State Farm.
The spark didn't come from a real ad agency, however. It came from the Black-ish writers' room.
"The show had a little nugget of an idea," said Meg Smith, senior manager of integrated marketing at Disney ABC Television Group. "We started meeting with The Marketing Arm and talking about how State Farm can be integrated." Once the first draft was complete, ABC worked with The Marketing Arm and State Farm to align the story with State Farm's brand messaging.
"If you were at a basketball game and a league that was sponsored by a brand, you would organically see them around the gymnasium," said Jen Cowan, vp of TV, film, and digital series at The Marketing Arm. "It didn't feel forced."
Wednesday's episode is Black-ish's first since the sophomore series took on a more serious tone in an episode centered around police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement. It wasn't the first time the show touched on current, controversial issues that might scare other advertisers away. The Season 2 premiere focused on the use of the n-word.
ABC's Smith said the network is careful about which episodes are ripe for integration and which are not. "There are certain shows we would look into integrating into and some we wouldn't," she said. State Farm's Gold added that the insurer didn't seek assurances from ABC because it was pitched the specific episode.
Fox was an early adopter of brand integrations. Ford partnered with Fox during the original run of The X-Files and returned for the revival. Last fall, Pepsi factored into a three-episode arch of Empire. And Fox even called Pepsi's competitor for an integration in January's Grease Live, in which Coca-Cola had a bit part.
"I love what Pepsi did with Empire," said Gold. "Opportunities like those are few and far between, and there's a lot of work and effort. ... I would love to find that type of opportunity for State Farm."