When big Hollywood stars roll up to the red carpet on Oscar night in a Toyota Prius rather than the usual gas-guzzling limo, it's a picture worth a thousand words — and millions of dollars' worth of publicity. "When Cameron (Diaz) is driving her Prius and my license inserts are all over it, it's a nice message," says dealer Mike Sullivan, who owns Toyota of Santa Monica and Toyota of Hollywood.
Former Toyota boss Jim Press gave Sullivan full credit for coming up with the product placement coup in March 2003, when Sullivan provided cars for some of Hollywood's biggest stars to arrive at the Academy Awards.
The publicity from that Oscar night and from several similar efforts at other Hollywood photo opportunities helped put the previously obscure Toyota Prius on the nation's radar screen, even though the Prius had virtually no conventional national advertising.
"It was Mike Sullivan's idea," Press said in an interview before he left Toyota to become co-president of Chrysler. "It didn't come from marketing — we didn't do it, they did. The environmentally conscious celebrities did it."
Besides Cameron Diaz, Sullivan said Leonardo DiCaprio, Ed Begley Jr., Tom Hanks and Madonna have bought hybrid cars from him for their personal use. "They're really very genuinely active" in environmental causes, Sullivan says.
Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. didn't come up with the Oscar night idea, but it was quick to exploit it. The company provided hybrid cars for about a dozen stars and other VIPs, not just in Hollywood but on both coasts.
The company also has long-standing sponsorships of environmental groups such as the Environmental Media Association of Los Angeles, says Mary Nickerson, national manager for advanced technology vehicle marketing.
"Showing the Prius in a line of long stretch limos really presented itself as looking very different, and there were many people who had not seen a Prius up to that point," she says.
About 10 celebrities went to the Academy Awards in Priuses that night in 2003, Nickerson says.
"I think that was really the right group," she says. "They were really trying to make a statement: 'We can be true to ourselves. We don't have to change to fit the day. We drive a fuel-efficient, low-emission vehicle; we do it every day; and we can do it on our best day.' "
— Jim Henry