Outrage as Oprah Winfrey ‘you get a car’ winners charged thousands in gift tax

It’s an iconic TV moment: audience members laughing and crying as chat-show host, Oprah Winfrey yells: “you get a car!”

But it turns out that the free car giveaway may have been, in some respects, too good to be true.

According to a three-part podcast, called Making Oprah: The Inside Story of a TV Revolution, the famous episode left some audience members disappointed – after they discovered they needed to stump up $7,000 for their prizes.

The 276 Pontiac G-Six cars – which had an asking price of $28, 500 – were subject to tax, like any other gift.



Depending on how much they earned, audience members either had to pay a tax of up to $7,000 to get the car or pay the tax and keep the profits.

They could also forfeit the car entirely.

According to the podcast, hosted by journalist Jenn White, the idea for the famous giveaway actually came from Winfrey’s friend, Gayle King.

King struck up a conversation with an executive from the Pontiac car company, who then offered 25 cars for a giveaway.


(YURI GRIPAS/AFP/Getty Images)

However, the producers were not satisfied – and pushed for every studio audience member to be given a free auto on a 2004 episode of the hit chat show.

However, Winfrey, when she learned of the plan, told producers that the cars had to only go to those who needed them.

“That would give it a depth and an intention”, says the legendary TV personality on the podcast.

Winfrey and her producers bought on-stage 11 people who desperately needed a new car and announced that their wildest dream was coming true.

The host took the audience by complete surprise when she announced that a twelfth person was also going to get a car.

Each audience member was going to get a box, and the key to a new car would be inside one of them. The twist, of course, was that a key to a new car was inside all of them.

Producers even had to have an ambulance on stand-by, in case someone had a heart attack from the shock.

However, the studio audience’s mood soon turned sour after the show, as they learned of the tax burden they would have to pay.


(Kevin Winter/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)

“Because we didn’t pay the gift tax, people complained to the press, and that was devastating”, says Lisa Erspamer who was a producer on Winfrey’s show at the time.

She adds that the producers had a “real intention to do something good”, leaving them hurt when members of the studio audience reacted negatively.

“You can understand why some of the audience might be annoyed with getting a bill of up to $US7,000”, says podcast host White.

“But you can also understand the producers looking at that and going ‘we just gave you a car?’”

Winfrey’s catchphrase on the episode – “you get a car!” – has become a pop culture staple and has been frequently parodied.