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Do people really buy cars as holiday gifts?

White Lexus cars with red bows against a snowy background, part of the "December to Remember" ad campaign thathas been running since 1999.

The Lexus "December to Remember" event has been running since 1999. Lexus

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It’s that time of the year when you’re bombarded with TV advertisements making you feel like a bad person if you don’t buy your partner a brand new car as a gift. And, of course, present it with a giant red bow on top. 

The tradition of commercials that tug at heartstrings, rather than the more shouty “Buy Now! Massive Discount!” style of car ads, goes back to Lexus. That brand’s “December to Remember” holiday ads have been running for 20 years.

Lexus’ 2019 December to Remember commercial.

“The idea was to essentially to get people to think that maybe a car purchase during Christmas was the perfect gift,” said Karl Brauer of Kelley Blue Book.

A Lexus sedan starts at $38,000, so it’s a pretty nice present. The company says the ads work. In 1998, December was Lexus’ 10th best-selling month. By 2000, it was top.  

Consumer psychologists say auto companies and dealers recognize that people indulge each other — and themselves — during the holidays. Spending is in the air, and they’re primed to buy. 

“Self-gifting and treating is really much higher during December than any other time of the year,” said Kit Yarrow, author of “Decoding the New Consumer Mind.”

The figures show people are buying cars. Over the last six years, sales of luxury vehicles have spiked at the end of the year, according to research from Cox Automotive’s mobility group.

“So it makes complete sense that they’re the ones offering these year-end sales events, because they’re wanting to trigger an even higher consumer demand for purchases before year end,” said Rachelle Petusky, senior manager of research.

Vehicles sales ticked up 2.2% in December last year. Some of the year-end increase is because dealers do give good deals as they look to meet targets and move old model-year cars. 

A word of caution though if you think buying a car as a gift is going to make someone really happy. It might not work out that way.

“Every holiday season, I interview consumers about what’s the best gift and what’s the worst gift you’ve ever been given,” Yarrow said. “I’ve had two people say they got a car for Christmas, and it was the worst gift they’ve ever been given.”

She said typically people like to be involved in the choice and purchase of cars. Plus, if it’s the family car, it’s not so much a gift as something that will have to be paid for, every month, for the next few years.

And if you do decide to make it a surprise, don’t forget the bow — sometimes dealers run out.

Eric Lyman, chief industry analyst at ALG, a TrueCar subsidiary, says his brother-in-law bought a car for his wife and was told there were no bows left.

“He was pretty disappointed,” Lyman said. “The car was a white car, so it was the ultimate Christmas gift, this big snowy white vehicle … without the red bow.”

So if you do want the full fantasy car-gifting experience this year, make sure you’ve got the red ribbon all tied up, too.

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