I don't know whether the company paid for it or how much. All I know is it should have, and even if it did, it didn't pay enough. I refer, of course, to last week's episode of NBC's The West Wing. For those who missed it (or who were too politically exhausted to watch, after the recent presidential race), here's a summary of the show:

The world is running out of oil because GM (NYSE:GM) makes a gas-guzzler called the "Hummer" that kills little fuel-efficient cars. We should nonetheless all buy shares in ChevronTexaco (NYSE:CVX) because Americans love gas-guzzlers. Plus, if we try to develop hydrogen fuel cell cars manufactured with Ballard's (NASDAQ:BLDP) technology, they will explode like the Hindenburg. The only alternative to the above scenario is for every man, woman, and child in America to immediately sign onto a waiting list to buy a Prius at their nearest Toyota (NYSE:TM) dealer.

That last bit is key. West Wingers mentioned the Prius by name 10 times in the course of one hour of network television. Now, I don't know whether Toyota anted up a product placement fee for this. NBC parent GE (NYSE:GE) probably wanted one, just like Fox (NYSE:FOX) wanted, and got, a fee for giving Ford (NYSE:F) vehicles a prominent role in the past couple seasons of its 24 drama.

But it's quite possible that Toyota paid not a dime for its honorable, and numerous, mentions during the show. Word has it that because of incredible demand -- so great that, yes, people now have to wait in line for the "privilege" of paying a premium to the sticker price to buy the car -- Toyota no longer actively advertises the Prius. Rather, the company allows customer word of mouth, and the innumerable mentions of the car whenever any journalist reports on the hybrid vehicle phenomenon, to advertise the car for free. I strongly suspect that this is what happened on The West Wing. The car mentioned by default when referring to hybrids is not Honda's Insight (too cosmic in appearance) or Civic (too easily confused with the non-hybrid Civic) or Ford's new Escape SUV hybrid (same reason). The Prius, as a normal-looking car available only in hybrid form, gets tapped to play poster child for the whole hybrid movement.

That's not just free advertising, folks. It's advertising that money can't buy. When everybody talks about you as though you're the only game in town, before long, you are.

New to hybrids? Read news on hybrids. We got it all lined up for you here:

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article.