Toyota's Prius hybrid finds favor in Hollywood

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Fans of HBO's "Six Feet Under" mourned the end of the mortuary drama's five-season run last month. But you won't be seeing Toyota executives shedding any tears over the finale.

If you do, they might be tears of joy.

All you have to do is take a look at the series' final six minutes. During a sentimental montage that wraps up what happens to each of the show's lead characters, one of them is shown driving off into the sunset down a desert highway behind the wheel of a Prius. For Toyota, it's also the latest example of Hollywood's love affair with the marque. Since its introduction in 1997, the gas-electric hybrid vehicle has been adopted by environmentally friendly celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz. It's been written into the plots of shows like "The West Wing." Larry David drives one on HBO's comedy "Curb Your Enthusiasm." It's also served as an "alternative limo" at the Academy Awards.

More roles

The car will soon appear in the Julia Louis-Dreyfus sitcom "Old Christine" on CBS, the Fox legal comedy "Head Cases" and the romantic comedy "The Last Kiss" from DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures.

It's not as if Prius really needs the extra exposure to boost sales. The car has quickly become Toyota's third best-selling model behind the Camry and the Corolla, with many customers often waiting months to receive their vehicles. More than 100,000 of the cars have been sold worldwide. Toyota recently announced that it would build 100,000 of the cars for the U.S. market alone-up from the 36,000 units that the carmaker had originally thought it would produce for the second generation of the vehicle, introduced in 2003.

As more car buyers are steering toward hybrid vehicles, Toyota is hoping to use entertainment to promote its lineup of hybrid cars and trucks. Rivals such as Ford and Honda also have hybrid editions of their Escape SUV and Civic sedans, respectively.

But because of its unique design, Prius has become the poster child of most hybrids. "The Prius is such a visually distinctive car," said Rob Donnell, CEO of Brand Arc, a Santa Monica, Calif., branded-entertainment shop that reps Toyota and its luxury brand Lexus. "It makes a statement. And it makes it better than any other vehicle out there."

Past Prius integrations have occurred because cast members or producers drove the cars themselves and wanted one to be in their movie or TV show. Other requests were made because of what it says about a character. "It's not about saving money on gas," Mr. Donnell said. "It's about driving a cleaner vehicle."

In May, "Six Feet Under" producers approached Mr. Donnell to use the Prius in the finale, which would be shot in June. Because HBO doesn't accept integration fees from brands, 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,"' Mr. Donnell said.

The show appealed to Prius' target demographic: people who are influencers and trendsetters that adapt to new ideas and new ways of thinking. "That show hits the Prius demographic better than most on network TV," he said.

Mark Simmons, national manager of advertising strategy and media for Toyota Motor Sales USA, said that "on a 1 to 10 scale, it was a 10."

The placements of the Prius is only part of Toyota's recent strategy of aggressively going after TV and film properties to showcase its vehicles-hybrid or not.

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