Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Christmas Lexus: A Fable for Our Times

The Christmas Lexus ads are as widely loathed as they are effective.

Not just any Lexus,” as one of my graduate students said with just the right inflection for emphasis, “The Christmas Lexus.” We were performing a semiotic deconstruction of these illlustrations of American excess. But it doesn’t require the theory of Roland Barthes or Umberto Eco to spy and decry the haute bourgeoisie mythification of shopping for the glory of God.

As AdFreak headlines, Lexus is back with the usual Christmas downer. Adjab identifies the campaign as Ads We Hate and it tops the Yuletide peeves at The Daily Ping.

Jeremy W. Peters at the New York Times reports that the Christmas Lexus happens. The surest sign of flattery, other auto makers are airing imitations.

Those spoilsports over at Live and Learn Invest point out that the more likely response is “You did what?” than the happy smiles in the Lexus ads.

I knew a woman whose husband gave her a Mercedes Benz for their wedding anniversary. She’d left him after raising a family together but, like Janis Joplin, discovered freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. He was really glad to have her back. She was furious when he replaced her subcompact for the luxury Mercedes diesel. Ecologically responsible, she liked her peppy little car that handled like a top in traffic. How dare he trade away her car without consulting her, she fumed.

Then there’s this video of the 14-year-old girl who throws a tantrum because she received the gift of a $67,000 Lexus before, instead of during, her party. “My life is ruined,” she sobs. Or this spoiled teen who complains because her gift car is red, not blue.

Halfbakery has the perfect response – the evil gift of a fake Lexus key that sends the recipient into the snow only to discover there’s no luxury auto with a bow on top out there.

My students did a fine job of deconstructing the sign –the Christmas Lexus– into its signifier (the photo of the car) and the signified (a gift that shows you care, a lot). The sign empties of its denotative meaning, as Roland Barthes has it, and fills up with connotation – wealth and prosperity, a surfeit of money so great that a $40,000 to $70,000 car is but a bauble for celebrating the holiday. A perfect home, a perfect family, even a perfect snowy night in at least one of the ads. What could possibly result but perfect happiness?

Those of us who regard a car as a large, utilitarian purchase for which we must budget – that is to say, most of us, the petit bourgeosie hoping for admission into the upper levels of the middle class – are hooked by the emotions depicted in the ad's images. Consumer capitalism is concealed and mythified. If you want really good analyses of these, may I direct your attention to:

Me, I’m off to buy a phony Lexus key.

For something cheerier, check out this fabulously creative and entertaining award-winning animation by Aaron Erimez. It's the story of a mischievous Christmas tree ornament and its adventures when the household is asleep.

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