“Are you [bleep]ing kidding me, Nathan? Did you seriously buy a car without asking me?” A 2021 SNL sketch imagined the only logical response receiving a car wrapped in a giant red bow on Christmas morning. It’s a spoof of the Lexus “December to Remember” campaign, which debuted in 1999, at the height of the first dot-com bubble just 10 years after Toyota introduced the upstart luxury brand.
Many automakers have since cribbed what the campaign’s current creative director calls “the driveway moment.” BMW ran a cheeky ad last year in which the wind carries a bow from a house to a car not actually intended as a gift. A GMC spot in which a man wows his wife with two hulking utility vehicles—and she claims the black pick-up instead of the red SUV—drew particular ire on Reddit, where users debated which version of the “Christmas car bow” ad they hated most.
Though the vehicles in the GMC ad appear au naturel, all the absurdities inherent to the fantasy of giving or receiving a car are tied up in the image of a massive red bow. Critics may balk at the sentimentality and material extravagance that the ribbon represents, but clearly it has sticking power. When the bow turns 25 next year, it will be old enough to rent its own car.
“It seemed like a nice twist on what everyone else was doing,” says Chris Graves, chief creative officer at Team One, the agency responsible for “December to Remember.” At the time, the conventional messaging for end-of-year automotive sales was clearance to make way for new models. That doesn’t fly on the luxury market, so Graves’ predecessors decided to focus on the act of gift giving.
“You wish to create that kind of shorthand with everything in advertising,” Graves says of the car-bow combo, which he says originated in a previous Team One spot featuring someone dreaming about what they wanted for the holidays.
The campaign has driven significant success; December has been the biggest sales month for Lexus since its launch. “Perception builds over the years that if you’re going to buy a Lexus, that’s the month to do it,” Graves says. The brand has also led the luxury sales category in all but a handful of years since 2000.
The ad has been endlessly retooled over that time, including to suit economic downturns. (“You don’t want to be tone-deaf to the times and say, ‘Hey, give everybody a $50,000 car,’” Graves says.) In 2008, the campaign featured people looking back on the best gifts they’d ever received, while pandemic-year ads focused on the value of family.
This week, Lexus released its 2023 spots, including one in which a boy buries a toy car in the snow like a seed then wakes up to a full-size, bow-topped Lexus TX. Never mind that he looks a decade away from driving age.
And bows are everywhere at auto dealerships, as consumers have been conditioned to stick them on fourth-quarter car purchases. A search for “car bows” on Amazon yields more than 500 results, many for under $20.
Dealerships have been big business for King Size Bows in Costa Mesa, Calif., which first began supplying custom designs for the “December to Remember” campaign in 2008. “Sales definitely picked up because the ads gave the bow notoriety and showcased what could be done,” says Amber Kingaard Hughes, CEO of the family-owned shop, where ready-to-ship car bows start in the $50 range. The company, which has been featured on The Today Show and in many feel-good holiday stories, was founded by Linda King in 2000, when she couldn’t find a bow big enough to wrap the car she bought for her daughter.
The other auto campaigns for which King Size Bows currently creates custom designs are protected by NDAs, but the dealers it supplies include Hyundai, Chevrolet, Mitsubishi, Hummer, and Mercedes. Not surprisingly, Hugues says that the car-bow craze has migrated from every customer wanting to buy their own bow to capturing an Instagram moment on the lot.
“The dealership gets a marketing opportunity on social media and the client gets a picture with the big bow,” Hughes says. “It’s a win-win.”
As for the giant bow business, buildings have actually surpassed cars to become King Size Bows’ leading category, as automotive sales dipped over the past three years due to the pandemic and supply shortages. “We have a lot of banks, hospitals, and commercial buildings that are putting big bows on them,” Hughes says.
More than expecting that consumers will run out and buy a luxury vehicle on impulse, the “December to Remember” strategy is to “elevate the desire in your mind for that thing,” Graves says, which bows do outrageously well.
“A big bow on a car is like the adult version of Santa showing up when you’re a kid,” Hughes says. “I hear people say all the time, ‘When I get a car someday, I hope I get a big bow on it.’ I’m still waiting for that moment.”