If Half of U.S. Drivers are Women, Why Aren't Auto Manufacturers Doing a Better Job of Marketing to Them?

Elizabeth Werth Aug 05, 2018. 24 comments

Picture a car advertisement. Commercial, billboard, magazine ad—chances are, you’re bombarded with plenty of ‘em all day. Now imagine who’s driving the car. Maybe they’re speeding down the street in a crossover, sending skirts and newspapers flying. Maybe a super cool celebrity is cruising down a long desert road, the epitome of cool, or they’re speeding across an air strip detailing all the reasons you should buy their trendy sports car car. Hell, maybe they’re even going off-roading through rough terrain to market the durability of their truck.

Are you picturing a dude?

If you are, there’s probably a reason for that. A quick YouTube search of “car ads” or “car commercials” brings up millions of results, and, chances are, there’s a man behind the wheel. Like this compilation of “funny badass car commercials” that are straight-up described as “macho”, because that’s apparently the kind of stuff that we’re supposed to remember:

If there’s a family in the car, dad’s at the wheel. If there’s a couple in the car, the guy is driving. In the off chance that women are driving—she’s with her female friends staring at Ryan Reynolds, she’s picking the kids up from soccer practice, she’s by herself, or she’s marketing (dear God) car insurance. You’ll be bombarded with those before you get one ad telling you to defy labels and pick the vehicle that truly suits you.

There aren’t many hard statistics on the percent of car ads that cater to men over women because of how often we’re bombarded with commercials. But if you’ve ever, y’know, watched television, you know how often men are driving. Hell, I’ve been lazing around on the couch watching What Not To Wear all week long—a show that is definitely designed with the lady in mind—and you’re still hard pressed to find a woman behind the wheel!

Let’s talk statistics. In the United States, there are now more licensed female drivers on the road than male drivers. In 2016, only 49 percent of licensed drivers were men—which, sure, sounds like a pithy little number to hold up as feminist progress. But compare that to the number of women you see driving in automotive ads. You’re definitely not seeing 51 percent of ads asking women to drool over their products.

CJ Pony Parts compiled a handy infographic from information reported on CBS and Edmunds. And, most interestingly, we’re finding that women have been purchasing vehicles more than men.

It reports that 62 percent of all new cars sold in the US are purchased by women and that 85 percent of car buying decisions are made by women. If car advertisements are to be believed, you’d think that the guys in the household are the ones holding executive sway on the family vehicles.

Interestingly, studies have been finding that men and women have different approaches to buying cars. Women are more likely to be undecided on what they want. They generally value utility over looks and opt for an Asian non-luxury car brand, like a Kia or a Honda. Men, on the other hand, usually know exactly what car they want and care far more about how their purchase will impact their image. Guys like European luxury brands. They’re the ones more likely to buy a Ferrari or a Porsche.

But, with that said, there’s been an uptick in the desire to market luxury cars to women, with brands like Porsche going out of their way to create a car more appealing to the opposite sex. It’s going to be interesting to see how things play out: are women not interested in luxury cars because they simply don’t like them, or because they’ve never even considered them an option in the way men have?

If automotive companies were actually marketing to their target audience, you’d imagine we’d have a lot more commercials featuring women at the helm—and preferably doing things that aren’t, y’know, overtly sexist.

If you’re reading Jalopnik, you know this, but it feels like it’s news to other people: there are women who actually like driving cars! Sometimes we just drive cars for fun! Sometimes we drive cars to work. Sometimes we drive cars while our significant other is in the passenger seat because it’s my car and I’m driving. And sometimes the guys drive the kids to school, or pick up the groceries, or just go out to get coffee. Also we sometimes drive cars to win at racing. Normal stuff, really.

Not every single car needs to be advertised as a hyper-masculine way to assert your big dick energy. Not every car advertisement needs to have a man behind the wheel.

The “cars are for men and not for fragile feminine sensibilities” is a mindset that kicked off at the turn of the 20th century, but society has perpetuated it ever since. That was an era when the crank-start combustion engines were for the boys and the delicate, slower, easier-to-start electric cars were for the gals. Things started to change around World War II, when women were driving as a necessity while the men were at war—but not by much, as you can tell today.

I mean, take the Dodge La Femme, for example. Here was a car marketed especially for women during the mid-1950s, so of course the thing was pink and came with a matching makeup case and rain bonnet. Yes, it’s the sort of patronizing “my wife wants a car, isn’t that precious?” attitude you’d expect from an era of rigid gender roles and good housewives. Even then, the car was a massive flop. Women were simply not interested in a car just because it was pink and came with cute accessories. They were looking for reliability and functionality, just like women are today.

But automakers haven’t abandoned the concept that fueled La Femme’s disaster, so attempts to market to women still fall flat. Automakers are having a real tough time figuring out how to appeal to a broad audience without pigeonholing one gender into a certain category. And they’re still focusing on stereotypical “female” interests, as Tamara Warren put it in The Auto Industry’s Play for the Female Driver:

It’s clear that companies are focusing on fashion, design, arts, and entertainment initiatives to target women. Nissan cites its sponsorship of last month’s BET Awards, a show with high female viewership, as a key strategic component. Nissan was also the title sponsor for an event held by literary publisher The Feminist Press. Last year designer Zac Posen designed a custom interior for a 2014 Infiniti Q50 that was auctioned for charity, while this year, Rolls-Royce awarded a $10,000 scholarship as part of the Pratt Institute’s “Women of Influence in the Business of Style” program; Rolls-Royce also introduced a special “fashion-inspired” Wraith.

I’m here to tell you right now, y’all, this is some hot bullshit. As a woman who loves cars and knows plenty of other women who also love cars and women who couldn’t give one single solitary fuck about them: this marketing strategy doesn’t work. These are all incredibly niche initiatives that don’t even really focus on, y’know, cars. This is the exact same “women love fashion, so we need to blend fashion and cars!!!” mindset that has been plaguing the industry for years.

And the irony of the matter is, women are less concerned about the aesthetics of a car than men! Yet the automotive industry is still trying to pander to the arcane and incorrect notion that women know nothing about cars and just want a pretty little thing instead. They’re ignoring the facts to focus on a stereotype, and it hasn’t been working.

The automotive world still isn’t welcoming to women. You can’t get away from the sheer disgust that surrounds crossovers, a market being driven by young female buyers . Women are interested in having a lot of storage space and good fuel economy, while the male audience is annoyed that the crossovers aren’t as good looking as the cars they’re used to. Hell, even CarBuzz made the bold demand that we “tell” women to stop buying SUVs. It’s frustrating.

Women are driving auto sales, but their concerns are written off simply because they’re not what men might consider traditionally appealing. It’s the kind of thinly veiled misogyny that still exists in society today, whether you like it or not, and it makes it hard as hell for a car company to market to women as well as men. It’s still a bad thing to create a “woman’s car”, but automakers aren’t going to stop making the things they’re selling. They’re just, y’know, going to keep marketing it to the guys.

As that infographic claims, only 38 percent of women feel confident when buying a vehicle, compared to 58 percent of men. There are a lot of factors that go into that, but studies have shown that, yes, advertisements have an effect on the attitudes of the people who see them. Whether you like it or not, television is an important part of a child’s socialization nowadays.

If we’re bombarded with car commercials catered specifically to men, despite the fact that getting your driver’s license is a rite of passage for all teens, we’re going to reflect that. We aren’t going to see women as interested in cars, so women won’t be as interested in cars, and, maybe more importantly, women aren’t even going to feel capable of understanding what makes a good car.

The representation of gender matters because we often emulate what we see, in our mindsets if not necessarily our practices. Both men and women purchase cars in the same way that both genders eat food, but no one is trying to market chicken soup as the hetero-masculine ideal that all men need to purchase and eat for success. And if that sounds silly to you, it’s about time we started looking at why it doesn’t sound so ridiculous when we apply that logic to cars.

So, I gotta ask, automakers: why aren’t you doing a better job to advertise to your target audience? When do the girls get to take the wheel?


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