The Paternalism of the Holiday Car Ad

Dec 19, 2011Bryce Covert

Husband buys wife a car with their combined income, without her permission. Happy holidays!

Ah, the holiday car commercial. You know the one. What did dad get mom? Just a little box… with a key in it to a new car! The family rushes to the yard, where a shiny new car waits with a big red bow on it. Apparently the tradition was started by Lexus in 1998, when it began its yearly “December to Remember” campaign that promotes a new car as the perfect gift. And it’s been successful: December Lexus sales are traditionally better than any other month. Other car companies have followed suit.

Some of these ads now feature girlfriends buying boyfriends cars for the holidays, but the most traditional form seems to be a husband buying one for his wife. There’s something wrong with this picture. As Annie Lowrey tweets in parody of these ads, “Husband buys wife a car! Wife expresses horror that he made a major financial decision unilaterally, on impulse!” It is strange to think that a man would up and buy his wife a car without consulting her, particularly as most married couples combine their earnings. But it hearkens back to a time when women didn’t have their own earnings, couldn’t buy their own cars, and actually did have to rely on husbands to buy them a new set of wheels.

Take a look at this vintage holiday car ad:

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Look familiar? Or take this non-holiday ad:

Why do these women have to beg their men for cars? Because many can't afford to buy cars outright, but before the 1970s, women, minorities, and low-income families were excluded from credit products. Women in particular were denied loans based on social biases such as the idea that their salaries weren’t dependable because they would become pregnant and stop working. Not to mention that many women didn’t even have their own incomes; in 1950, only 34 percent of women were in the workforce.

These days, women make up almost half of the workforce. Thanks to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, they can take out as many car loans as any man. And while only four percent of husbands made less than their wives in 1970, by 2007 that percentage had risen to 22. A quarter of households are headed by women. Yet even with women having made such strides in income and the ability to make purchases equally with their husbands, this ad celebrates a man who buys his wife a car without permission as if she is helpless to do so.

Nothing says "happy holidays" like some old timey sexism that assumes women can't buy themselves a car when they want one.

Bryce Covert is Editor of New Deal 2.0.

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