Egregious Product Placement: Toyota & Bones

April 13, 2010
By | 3 Comments

Bones, “Bones on the Blue Line,” original airdate April 1, 2010
The scene: Daisy and Angela, driving down the road. Viewers are treated to a medium shot of a Toyota Sienna moving smoothly along a relatively rural road. Cut to an interior view of the characters inside the car, while they have a short discussion related to the plot of the episode. And then…

Daisy (looking around interior of car): Why do you drive a minivan? Do you have kids that we don’t know about?
Angela: I’m an artist, Daisy, and the Sienna has plenty of room, plus I stink at parallel parking and that back-up camera thing is like the invention of the century.
Daisy nods.

…and they return to plot-related discussion.

This post could be about the seeming ubiquity of scripted product placement lately–even though that’s nothing new.  Early radio, after all, had to script their sponsor plugs (audiences couldn’t see them using Vaseline, they had to talk about it).  And shows like Alias and 24 have long irritated fans with their lingering, loving shots of Fords driven by superspies and superagents.  Televisionary has this 2006 post about when product placement goes too far, citing the presence of scripted product integration within dramas and comedies as particularly bothersome (as opposed to such integration within unscripted programming).  Jace even critiques Alias outright–in particular, an episode when the characters discuss that the “quietness” of the electric Ford Hybrid is useful for their mission.

But this post isn’t about scripted product placement, despite its prevalance and increasing audacity.  No, this post is actually about a particular moment–the one roughly scripted above.  It’s certainly the kind of thing that might irritate viewers by taking them out of the narrative through an awkward, somewhat stilted conversation related to the vehicle being driven.  But, as an audience member myself, after my initial annoyance and eye-rolling, I realized that, in fact, this particular instance of product placement was actually pretty brilliant, and a definite coup on the part of Toyota.

You see, this isn’t just placement touting the general benefits/awesomeness of the product.  No, this particular moment not only “works” (more or less) within the context of the series (Angela is, in fact, an artist and not a soccer mom)–it works within the context of Toyota’s current ad campaign for the Sienna.  The campaign focuses on redeeming the minivan and making it cool.  The key spot for the campaign, known as the “Swagger Wagon” ad, is below.  (See the entire campaign here.)

This ad, and the rest of the campaign, focus on touting the Sienna as a family vehicle, yes–but more than that, it’s depicted as much cooler and more deisrable than the stereotypical minivan, long believed to be the preferred car of “lame” soccer moms and dads.  The recurring punchline of “Daddy like” and “Mommy like” and, of course, the goofy “Swagger Wagon” concept underscore the reimagining of the minivan.

And this is why the Bones moment is so fantastic.  The Sienna appears, yes.  It is even mentioned within the script.  But even better, the treatment of the product placement underscores the larger campaign–the van is depicted as belonging to Angela, the most hip, least nerdy, childless character on the series, and she’s able to explain why she loves the van despite its “mom” reputation.

Regardless of whether Toyota arranged for this particular treatment of the Sienna within the script, or if they simply lucked out because the Bones writers decided to give the van to the character least likely (or maybe not, if we believe the campaign) to own a van, this particular moment of product placement takes scripted integration from irritating to genius.  (For the sponsor, if not for fans.)


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3 Responses to “ Egregious Product Placement: Toyota & Bones ”

  1. Kristina Busse on April 13, 2010 at 7:43 PM

    That’s an interesting reading but one about whose success I’m ultimately skeptical. As a minivan-driving soccer mom, I look at the ad as incredibly ironic, trying to bridge the distance between who we have become (have always been?) and how we’d like to be seen (see ourselves). To me the ad reads as a somewhat sardonic mocking of the very people who buy minivans yet don’t see themselves as minivan drivers–even when they are…

    Then again, if Toyota wants to sell the pretense of coolness to the very customers who clearly are not–then maybe Angela is indeed as you suggest the perfect person to drive it: short-circuiting the pretense while nevertheless selling it at the same time.

    • Erin Copple Smith on April 13, 2010 at 9:33 PM

      That’s a great point, Kristina–and I absolutely agree that the Toyota ads are all about irony. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t feature “Mommy” and “Daddy” “liking” the van and dubbing it the “swagger wagon”, right? Rather, they’d be featuring young childless adults looking cool in a minivan.

      But, ultimately, I do think that the choice of Angela to own a Sienna (even if not explicitly laid out by Toyota in their deal with the producers–and I very much doubt it was laid out by Toyota, mind you) was an excellent one. In terms of the series, Angela is really the only logical choice–Booth drives a government-issued SUV, Bones would never be caught dead in a minivan, nor would the other squints. The only other possibility would be Cam, but of course, she actually has custody of a teenager, so she’s mom-esque, anyway. Angela is, in fact, an artist and a little flaky–giving her explanation of the vehicle some credibility within the narrative.

      For these reasons, I have to emphatically nod with and underline your last sentence above–I think this is absolutely what this moment is doing.

      Thanks so much for the great food for thought!!!

  2. Jane on April 18, 2010 at 6:35 AM

    I’m afraid I didn’t think Angela’s reasons ‘work’ at all. I found her explanation stilted and like she was reading from a brochure. Last week’s episode showed Bones driving a Prius. This is a departure from her standard car, and we rarely see her driving Booth, so I’m guessing this was a plot element designed to incorporate the product placement.

    I thought the product placement last week was poor, but tonight’s was extremely poor because I didn’t feel it was appropriate for the character or plot at all.