Toyota was the first advertiser to drive into a partnership with the ABC comedy “Modern Family.” Tonight, it will be the last.
As viewers watch a tribute to the program in the 8 p.m. hour Wednesday on ABC, they will see an animated commercial showing a Toyota Highlander driving through a series of landscapes that clearly evoke the homes and some of the situations that were featured in the longtime program – all in advance of a series finale at 9 p.m. tonight. Ty Burrell, who plays quirky “Modern Family” character Phil Dunphy, provides narration.
“The end of “Modern Family” marks an emotional and important moment,” says Lorenzo Harris, who oversees integrated media operations at Toyota North America. “Disney and Toyota evolved and adapted to give the show a one-of-a-kind tribute and celebrate with fans, all while bringing a piece of levity to the intensity of our current world.”
The series’ end brings with it the airing of one of the few remaining pieces of TV’s dwindling supply of original scripted programming, which may not be refilled immediately due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. The contagion has forced the closure of many efforts to produce new series and pilots.
The finale has even more importance to ABC’s parent Walt Disney, which is also grappling with the closures of its giant theme parks and a lack of live sports games to fill its ESPN sports-media portfolio. ABC has sought between $400,000 and $750,000 for a 30-second ad in the last show, according to a person familiar with the matter, though Standard Media Index, a tracker of ad spending, estimates the bulk of spots went for between $400,000 and $520,000.
The average cost of a 30-second ad in the show this season through February has been $126,741, according to SMI. ABC has sold out all its ad inventory for the broadcast, according to people familiar with discussions.
Series finales often capture a premium from sponsors, but the cost of pitching in the “Modern Family” coda isn’t close to TV’s records. Running a 30-second ad in the last broadcast of NBC’s “Seinfeld” ran between $1.4 million and $1.8 million, while a 30-second spot in the last airing of “Friends” fetched between $1.5 million and $2.3 million. CBS sought between $1.2 million and $1.5 million for a half-minute ad berth in the series finale of “The Big Bang Theory” last year. Still, a “Modern Family” finale ad might run a sponsor more than a spot in the last broadcast of “24” on Fox, which sought $650,000 for a commercial appearance.
“Modern Family” did a lot more for Madison Avenue than many of those programs. Advertisers flocked to the ABC comedy, knowing full well that producers Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd would only do business with a handful of sponsors in any given season. Audi, Target and Mondelez International’s Oreo were among the marketers woven into episodes and storylines in the series, as anyone who saw an episode showing Claire Dunphy doing her holiday shopping in a Target might tell you
Advertisers were eager to have their products placed into the hands of the series’ Dunphys and Pritchetts, says Jerry Daniello, senior vice president of Disney Advertising Sales, in an interview – not to mention their kitchens, backyards and living rooms, all in the hopes of getting U.S. consumers to see themselves using the same things as one of their favorite TV families. Producers “made sure that whatever brand they worked with felt original and belonged” in the storyline, says Daniello, “and wasn’t forced.”
Toyota has had a presence in the series over the course of 11 seasons, with producers assigning different kinds of vehicles to various characters. When Claire Dunphy was lugging young kids around town, she drove a Toyota Sienna; when the children got older, she drove a Camry. Mitch and Cam drove a Prius, a sign of their concern for the environment. Haley Dunphy got a Toyota Corolla on her 21st birthday.
But producers figured out a way to get other automakers on to the program, sometimes in the same episodes that featured Toyotas. Jay Pritchett drove an Audi.
Sometimes, an appearance on “Modern Family” caused a stir. In 2010, an Apple IPad – at the time, an unfamiliar electronic device – was made part of the plot of an episode, all about Phil Dunphy eagerly wanting to get his hands on the gadget. Apple made the machines available for producers to use, but were said not to have paid a dime for the use of an iPad in the show, a detail met with much skepticism.
Toyota had some other plans for the commercial slated to appear tonight. Executives had originally hoped for a live-action spot, potentially with members of the cast involved. But the coronavirus pandemic intervened, and Disney ad-sales staffers helped orchestrate a pivot to animation, sending sound equipment over to Burrell’s house.
“If you’re a super fan, you will watch it and you’re going to see a lot of Easter eggs in there,” says Jessica Popper, director, entertainment brand solutions at Disney Advertising Sales.
The new Toyota spot was harder to produce than a regular commercial, says Harris, the Toyota marketing executive. “Since we were leveraging the ‘Modern Family’ intellectual property, there were many additional teams that needed to provide input. Approvals became very labor intensive, but everyone involved in the project knew we were creating something special, so everyone went the extra mile to get this done,” he says.
Toyota and others will have no new episodes of “Modern Family” in which to appear. But in days to come, their products will likely be seen again and again in repeats that run on NBCUniversal’s USA and that will no doubt come to some streaming service.
Disney can take some solace in that. “Modern Family” was once produced by Fox, but it is now part of the Disney empire after Fox sold its studio-and-cable assets to the company last year. With that in mind, Disney may still find some other ways to attach new advertisers to its long-running show.