Is Zillow’s “Portlandia” takeover a step too far?

<em>TRD</em>’s pop culture columnist on real estate database giant’s latest stunt

From left: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of IFC's "Portlandia"
From left: Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein of IFC's "Portlandia"

A couple, Kath and Dave, stand in their recently renovated house, appearing dejected that their home is now too perfect — there’s nothing left for them to fix. Deciding that they need a new renovation project, they shout with glee, “Let’s get on Zillow!” Within seconds they’ve landed on the perfect fixer-upper. You might think this sounds like a cheesy informercial, but it’s actually the latest full-fledged episode of IFC comedy series “Portlandia,” created by and starring Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein.

The show has been overtly sponsored by Zillow — this year, a commercial for the real estate database airs midway through each episode — but on Thursday, the promotional content was dialed up several notches in an episode titled “House for Sale.”

Not only was each skit in the episode real estate-themed with words such as “escrow,” “microhome,” and “flipper” tossed around, but characters referenced and used Zillow without so much as a wink and a nod to viewers to alert them that they were part of the joke, not the butt of it.

This isn’t the first time Zillow has done broadcast content integrations, but sponsored content was never before part of existing real estate-related shows on networks such as HGTV.

The secret to comedy is supposedly timing, but apparently the alliance of IFC and Zillow has modified the definition to mean time plus mad advertising dollars. Yet this is no laughing matter.

Think about how differently we’d view the “Seinfeld” scene in which Kramer has a part in a Woody Allen movie and utters the famous line, “These pretzels are making me thirsty” if it was actually part of a native ad by Lays!

While the web and TV have been rife with advertorial, paid content and infomercials for years, all pretending to be legit user content when they are not, it has traditionally been made very obvious that it was either sponsored content or a paid ad. But this new breed of promotion — native advertising — can be far more ambiguous.

Zillow started doing television advertising two and a half years ago and increased its ad spending to about $75 million last year, according to a recent article by News Buy Media’s The firm’s budget this year is similar, according to Zillow’s chief marketing officer Amy Bohutinsky. “We’re going after high-profile placement opportunities and doing some new things to reach audiences,” Bohutinsky said.  “Integrations are something that have been part of our brand advertising strategy for the past year when we can find the right one.”

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Blake Callaway, IFC’s executive vice president of marketing and digital media, told that “‘Portlandia’ offers advertisers the opportunity to creatively integrate into one of television’s most talked-about comedies.”

“We couldn’t be happier that Zillow is an even bigger part of the new season,” he added.

However, for those “Portlandia” viewers not savvy to new advertising trends, they may have not even realized they were actually watching integrated content, or “native advertising.”

Warburg Realty broker Jason Haber can see why real estate-related firms would want to jump on the “Portlandia” bandwagon. “Only a fraction of its audience actually comes from IFC viewers,” Haber said.  The show has an enormous following on YouTube and Hulu and the value proposition for advertisers of a show has always been eyeballs.”  Traditional ads are fairly easy to avoid, but with branded content, the ad is the entertainment.

While real estate firms generally are okay with native ads or anything else that moves products, it can lead one to speculation about artistic integrity.

Haber feels integrated content won’t necessarily taint entertainment value if executed properly and notes there is a fine line between practicality and selling out. “If the broad story line came out of the creative process (and then they found a way to work in Zillow) I would be more okay with that,” says Haber.  He feels that by understanding the media landscape, firms can look to reach clients in new ways. “Heck, I would love to see Fred and Carrie drinking coffee out of a Warburg mug!”

Disclosure aside, there was something off about this episode. Even though the real estate industry has the potential to be great comedic fodder — recent episodes of Comedy Central’s “Broad City’ and Vimeo’s “High Maintenance” that deal with apartment hunting have gotten rave reviews–it simply wasn’t funny. Replacing a “put a bird on it” with “put a for-sale sign on it” just didn’t seem to fly. Though I’m a big fan of the show, this episode felt far too contrived with hackish jokes like characters unwittingly entering a crack house filled with squatters who mistake the term “fixer-upper” for “uppers.” When hordes of buyers put in offers, the realtor advises them to write a personalized letter to the couple to try to garner favor, but Armisen and Brownstein have trouble writing cursive and have to enlist a child to do so for them. Later when Carrie and Fred’s bid wins, they want to pull out because they can’t figure out with the word “escrow” means, even after watching an excruciating YouTube video about it.

Let’s hope those Zillow-highlighted TV houses come with an en-suite bath, because this episode and overall tactic could make some viewers end up feeling very dirty.