Look, I know product placement isn't new, and I know that the placement is becoming so ubiquitous as to be practically non-noteworthy. Long gone are the days when characters drank generic cans of beer or ordered a "soda" without specifying which mega-brand they wanted. In fact, product placement is so common these days that I've stopped being outraged over it. Now, I'm just interested in how the products change and what sort of impact they have as a product. Are they cool? A joke? Something to envy? A lead balloon?
For instance, this summer Eureka had some pretty shameless Subaru placement going on. It wasn't even the completely unsubtle and self-conscious wink-WINK 30 Rock employs, which I actually find somewhat amusing in its blatancy. The Eureka-Subaru placement wasn't clever or hammy or winkie-honest, it was...awkward. As Lisa Knight at Television Zombies comments, "[W]ho actually says 'Check out my new Subaru Impreza WRX' while pointing to their car?" Indeed.
Same goes for Heroes trying to pimp the Nissan Versa. Judging solely by the number of times the show made Ando or Hiro say the name "Nissan Versa," the show and sponsors were clearly hoping for the Versa to take the country by storm. The thing is, outside of Heroes, I never saw much of the Versa, and then I broke up with Heroes, so I saw it even less.
I could go on and on -- the Saab placement in Burn Notice and the Toyotas in Top Chef -- but I'm not cataloguing the placements, I'm going to announce something I've noticed: the Smart Car is the new Prius.
With respect to television and movies, the age of the Prius seems to be ending. I'm sort of sad about that because as a Prius driver, I like seeing my car slapped across television shows. It, like, validates me or something.
On the other hand, I'm sort of glad to see Age of Prius coming to a close, because as a group? We Prius-drivers can be really annoying. South Park had it right when they dubbed the eco-friendly car "Pius." I sort of feel that the more times you see a Prius on television, the more annoyed you're likely to be with the slow-moving Prius driver in front of you. (For the record, I'm not a slow-moving Prius driver, and my husband constantly weeps over my lead foot and total disregard for our MPGs.)
Plus, Prius drivers have some really dumb vanity plates. For instance, there's a blue Prius in my extended neighborhood with the license plate "Revere." Now, what is that about? Are we talking Paul Revere and the whole "British are coming!" thing or is it more along the lines of "Fall down and worship at the wheels of my greener than Jesus car"? I'm sad to say that it's very likely the latter.
The first time I was aware of Prius product placement on television was on The Gilmore Girls. Rory is given a Prius for college graduation, and it's one of the first generation Priuses (actually, I prefer to say "Prii," because I am that annoying). Another Prius showed up on Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Leonardo DiCaprio was very vocal about his Prius. That sort of started the Age of Prius.
Even after the South Park piss-take, Prius Power continued to be felt in recent days. You can see a Prius driven on The Office, the now-cancelled Reaper, on USA's summer show Royal Pains, and Melora Hardin drove one in 17 Again.
And have you noticed that it's always a blue Prius? White is too boring. No one wants white cars, especially after OJ. (Also, there might be some unsubstantiated idea that white cars make you look fat.) Sand is what your grandmother would drive, and silver doesn't provide enough pop on screen. Black is too sinister in a Bruce-Patman's-black-Porche sort of way. Red? Red pops, but red is too flashy. Red says something about a Prius driver that you don't want said if you have a Prius driver in your story. Blue is safe, blue is attractive, blue feels clean and eco-friendly.
However, as I said, the Age of Prius is ending, and we are now ushering in the Age of the Smart Car.
Smart Car drivers are whimsical, enviro-conscious, and clearly don't need to compensate for anything Freudian. As long as they don't smug-out over always finding a parking space, it's safe to say that Smart Car drivers are pretty innocuous. I've noticed that the eco-friendly Smart Car has popped up on Eureka, Psych, and in NBC's new comedy Community, where a character wants to be seen driving it in order to prove that he's "not a shallow douchebag." According to a community forum on the Smart Car of America website the Smart has also recently appeared on 90210 and Fringe.
Because they are so adorable you just want to put them in your pocket, the Smart Car doesn't (yet) offend or preach the way the Prius does. It's way too wee to get mad at. In fact, just seeing one -- parked or driving in traffic -- brings a smile to people's faces. Smart Cars are the kittens of pop culture product placement.
In her recap of Community's pilot, blogger Everyn calls the Smart Car "laughable." Exactly -- put a Smart Car in a movie or television scene and you've got an instant sight gag. And because they will always remind people of clown cars, it is entirely possible that while it might often be the butt of size-ist jokes, the Smart Car will never get annoying.
Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic is a contributing editor to BlogHer's Pop Culture and Entertainment sections. She spends a great deal of time yelling and throwing the occasional fruit and/or vegetable at her TV. That said, she loves television almost as much as she loves cooking. Her personal site is The Grub Report where she makes fun of her food and other aspects of her life.
More from entertainment