Your first response to another round of holiday Lexus commercials may be, "C'mon! Who buys cars for Christmas?!" Turns out a lot of people do.
If the Thanksgiving holiday weekend was a preview, many U.S. automakers can anticipate virtual big red bows tied around stacks of signed-off sales invoices to help them celebrate on New Year's Eve.
In data released this past week by Automotive News, Ad Age 's sibling publication, November sales of "light vehicles" surpassed 994,786 (compared to 873,000 last year) and expectations are that full-year sales could top 13 million. And, according to an analysis of Automotive News data from 2006 to 2010, December U.S. sales of cars and "light trucks" averaged 8.6% of the year's total sales.
Optimism, along with low interest rates and leasing deals—some with 0% down—is contagious.
"Automakers are sending the consumer buying signals right now," said Jessica Caldwell, an Edmunds analyst, in a Thanksgiving conference call. "It makes sense for consumers that , if now is the time to buy something—from jewelry to a flat-screen TV—it must be a good time to get a deal on a car too."
"December is almost always one of the best-selling months," Ralph Paglia, VP-digital at Tier 10 Marketing, said. "Part of the reason is tax consideration," he said. "The week between Christmas and New Year's is usually fantastic."
Mr. Paglia said that some dealers "threw a lot of money at Friday-to-Sunday" advertising on the Thanksgiving weekend, "and we saw an uptick in sales of about 11% to 14%, but it wasn't the 20% we were hoping for. We work with a lot of Honda and Toyota dealers, and we're still hearing about shortages of inventory."
Still, to capitalize on this selling season, carmakers from Acura to Volkswagen have cranked up campaigns, and for many, the direction takes cues from an anxious economic climate: downplaying the wealth and glamour angles, and emphasizing restraint.
In Acura's "Season of Reason" campaign, the cars don't appear until the final frame; the stars are instead Bette Midler, who hams up a caroling choir, and chef Gordon Ramsay, exploding into a fit as he prepares a holiday feast. The idea, said John Guynn, associate creative director at RPA's rp& in Santa Monica, Calif., "is about being over-the-top over-indulgence. It's what people are thinking about this time of year."
Audi shop Venables Bell & Partners in San Francisco pokes fun at the family, showing Junior driving home in the new Audi that his parents sneak out for a joyride. "We want to tell our story in a smart, clever, modern manner," said Loren Angelo, general manager for brand marketing at Audi of America. "We tend to push off the ubiquity of holiday red bows."
Audi isn't the only brand ribbing the competition. In a spot from RPA flogging "Happy Honda Days," spokesman Patrick Warburton casually knocks off the roof of a Civic a red bow that looks strikingly similar to those found in traditional Lexus holiday ads.
Lexus has focused on Christmas advertising for more than a dozen years to capitalize on what is historically a strong selling period, said Brian Bolain, national communications manager. As far as other carmakers "borrowing" the bow, he said, "I can't comment on their motivation, but it's fine to inject a little humor, if it's in the spirit of good fun." And if it isn't? "I think we have to imagine the customers we're [targeting] are different from the customers Honda is trying to meet," Mr. Bolain said.
Maybe. But what about the bows themselves? They come from King Size Bows out of Newport Beach, Calif., run by Lynda King. She charges Lexus several hundred dollars per bow but ships "thousands" of less elaborate, $49 bows to auto dealers at this time of year, she said. And what about the bows in the Honda ads? Said Ms. King, "We sold them, too."