Fans of HBO's "Six Feet Under" mourned the recent end of the series' five-season run. But if Toyota Motor Corp. executives cried about the finale, they might have shed tears of joy over the last episode's closing minutes.
One of the show's lead characters drove down a desert highway, into the sunset, behind the wheel of a Toyota Prius. For the automaker, it was the latest example of Hollywood's love affair with the hybrid car.
Since its introduction in 1997, the Prius has been adopted by environmentally friendly celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. It has been written into the plots of TV shows such as "The West Wing."
Larry David had been driving a Prius on HBO's comedy series "Curb Your Enthusiasm," but switched to a Ford Escape Hybrid at the start of the show's new season this fall.
The Prius also has been an "alternative limo" at the Academy Awards.
The car will appear in the new CBS comedy series "Old Christine" and the romantic comedy movie The Last Kiss.
It's not as if the Prius needs extra exposure to boost sales. The car quickly has become the Toyota brand's third best-selling model, behind the Toyota Camry and Corolla. Customers often wait months to get their vehicles. Toyota has sold more than 100,000 of the cars worldwide.
A distinctive design
Toyota says it plans to build 100,000 of the cars for the United States alone. That's up from the 36,000 units the company initially thought it would produce for the second generation of the Prius, introduced in 2003.
As more consumers buy hybrid cars and trucks, Toyota is hoping to use entertainment venues to promote its hybrid lineup. Because of its unusual design, the Prius has become the poster child of most hybrids.
"The Prius is such a visually distinctive car," says Rob Donnell, CEO of Brand Arc, an entertainment agency in Santa Monica, Calif., that represents Toyota and its luxury brand, Lexus.
"It makes a statement," Donnell says of the Prius. "And it makes it better than any other vehicle out there."
Actors and producers who drive the hybrid often want to include it in their movies or TV shows, Donnell says. In other cases, he adds, the Prius is used to make a statement about a character.
"It's not about saving money on gas," Donnell says. "It's about driving a cleaner vehicle."
They loved it
Producers of "Six Feet Under" approached Donnell to include the Prius in the series finale. Because HBO doesn't accept fees from marketers for product placement, Toyota couldn't control how the vehicle would be shown.
"They said: 'Don't worry about it. You'll love it. It'll be excellent placement,'" Donnell says. The HBO show "hits the Prius demographic better than most network TV."
Mark Simmons, national manager of advertising strategy and media for Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc., says the company is pleased with the exposure the Prius got on "Six Feet Under": "On a 1-to-10 scale, it was a 10."