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Holiday Car Ads in the Era of Millennials Buying Fewer Cars

It’s that time again – the season for fairy-tale car ads in which American families with glossy hair and dazzling teeth present each other with fancy automobiles as Christmas gifts. These impossibly prosperous and good-looking folks coo with delight at the luxury vehicles that show up in their driveways on Christmas morn, topped with enormous red ribbons and the faintest dusting of crystalline snow. You know the routine.

Lexus has long been a leader in this type of holiday-auto-fantasy-peddling, its jingle one of the season's most numbing refrains. This year, though, there is a hint of anxiety in the company’s ad campaign, a seeming reflection of the auto industry's new reality: that Millennials are not driving, and by extension not purchasing or even expecting as gifts, new cars anywhere near as much as their parents did.

In the new ads, we see well-heeled young folks sitting at home by the light of their tablet or laptop, Christmas lights twinkling in the background. Then, just as they are about to click on a dreary “like” or “share” button, they get a better idea: Let me jump in my car and go out into the real world!

"This December, remember," says the voiceover in one of the spots, which features a fashionably scruffy guy whose loft apartment is festooned with Edison bulbs and what looks like a fixed-gear bike hanging in the corner. "You can stay in and 'share' something, or you can get out there with your friends and actually share something."

Our young hero leaps up from the couch, loads his friends into a candy-apple-red Lexus, and goes on to "share" a night of clubbing, while the slightly amped-up Lexus Xmas theme thumps in the background.

As Sree Sreenivasan writes on CNET, this isn’t the first auto ad campaign to take aim at social media. Carmakers are clearly worried that the charms of a life lived on Pinterest and Facebook are a threat to a recreational existence driven by four wheels and gasoline. They should worry: not only are young people in the United States are buying fewer cars than ever before, but on a global level some researchers have found that the rise of Internet connectedness is correlated to a decline in car ownership.

Generation Y might well be in search of more human connection. But if young people are looking for real-world experiences, will they really be turning to hugely pricey automobiles to get them out the door? Or will they be more inclined to stroll out of their walkable downtown apartments on foot? To use their smartphones to check when the next bus is coming, or to reserve a Zipcar for short-term use? Or maybe even to take the fixie down from the wall and ride to the club?

The folks at Lexus may be packaging their ads a little differently this year. But they’re still playing the same old tune.

Sarah Goodyear has written about cities for a variety of publications, including Grist and Streetsblog. She lives in Brooklyn. All posts »

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