Advertising, Women, and the Muscle Car .

This blog entry was originally written as part of a graduate class assignment, and was incorporated into my book Power Under Her Foot: Women Enthusiasts of American Muscle Cars.

Women’s participation in muscle car culture from 1964 to 1973 is, for the most part, undocumented in scholarship as well as popular culture. Scholars such as Margaret Walsh (2006) suggest that young women took part in cruising culture as observers or passengers. Their main objective, Walsh contends, was to be seen, “thereby enhancing their status with their female peers” (p. 9). Author Robert Genat (2009) asserts the average young woman had very little interest in muscle cars; rather, “they just wanted to be there” (p. 44). As Genat writes, “in that era only a few women owned cars and the cars they owned would be considered sporty – such as a LeMans hardtop, Mustang, or Camaro – with convertibles high on the list” (p. 44). Other accounts of the muscle car era rarely mention young women at all.

The absence of narratives from female participants in muscle car culture means that other sources must be relied upon for information. One of the more accessible resources is advertising. As Deborah Clarke (2007) writes, “Given the extent to which ads become engrained in our heads, they seem to have the widest and strongest impact in shaping our awareness of cars and car culture” (p. 7). However, rather than indicate how young women participated in muscle car culture, advertisements are more indicative of what the auto industry, and American culture at large, thought women’s role in muscle car culture should be. As Jennifer Wicke, author of Advertising Fictions, observed, “Advertisements are cultural messages in a bottle” (quoted by Clarke, 2007, p. 8).

Prop

In muscle car print ads produced from 1964 to 1973, young women are presented in one of four roles. The most common is that of “prop.” Young women called upon to fulfill this role are often positioned strategically to attract the male buyer as well as to associate the automobile with sex. While automobiles from the 1950s were often considered feminine in form, their curves reminiscent of the female body, the muscle car, as long, lean, powerful, and fast, suggested another form of sexual conquest. Stephen Bayley (1986), in Sex, Drink and Fast Cars, argues that in the mind of the male driver, a fast car demonstrates sexual prowess. As Bayley contends, “Driving cars fast is an act of recklessness which […] recaptures some elements of the thrill of adolescent sex” (p. 32). The young woman in the 1969 Chevy Camaro print ad is perched on the passenger side of the vehicle so as not to be confused with the driver. The ad copy does not refer to her in any way; her presence is merely decorative.

Prize

While the possibility of sexual conquest is alluded to when women appear as props, the role of the young woman as “prize”, demonstrated in an ad for the 1969 Dodge Charger, removes any doubt. The attractive blond, placed in front of the automobile, lifts her skirt as both an invitation and a promise. The copy reads, “Do you really think you can get to me with that long, low, tough machine you just rolled up in? “ The answer, of course, is “yes.” Witzel and Bash (1997), students of the California cruising scene, assert that the young men who participated in muscle car culture understood that driving a fast and racy car was the most effective way to attract young women. “Without a doubt,” write Witzel and Bash, “a cool car was a prerequisite to get girls and get laid” (p. 23).

Passenger

Automotive scholars, such as historian Margaret Walsh (1986), suggest that the most common and preferred role of the young woman in muscle car culture was that of passenger. Understanding that only boys could raise a girl’s status among teenage peers, young women sought out young men in cool cars as a means to do so. Muscle car advertisements, such as that promoting the red Mustang convertible, often show attractive young women in the passenger seat. However, while the woman looks back to make sure she has been “seen,” the intent of such advertising is not to raise the status of the woman, but rather, that of the young man behind the wheel.

Prospect

In advertising from the muscle car era, women are rarely presented as drivers. While Mustang occasionally featured women in the driver’s seat, it was to promote the non-muscle, non-performance, small V-6 engine models. In period ads for the Dodge Challenger – Chrysler’s entry into the “pony car” market – as well as the Dodge Charger, the position of the young woman on the driver’s side alludes to, but does not confirm, that the vehicle might be attractive to the female driver. The availability of the Dodge muscle car in “high impact” colors – such as Plum Crazy and Panther Pink pictured here – has made Dodge vehicles a very popular choice among today’s female classic muscle car owners. The owner of a classic Panther Pink 1971 Dodge Challenger convertible revealed that when growing up, she had coveted the Challenger owned by her boyfriend’s older sister. Her comments suggest that while young men may have perceived the attractive woman in either the Charger and Challenger ad as one of the spoils of owning such a vehicle, young women, in fact, may have seen in her the possibility of themselves as competent and capable muscle car drivers.

As Deborah Clarke (2007) suggests, advertising has had a significant impact in shaping our perceptions of women’s place in muscle car culture. However, while images of young women as props, prizes, and passengers assume women occupied peripheral roles, the Dodge Charger and Challenger ads suggest that women may have also been considered potential customers, i.e. “prospects.”  If, as Clarke contends, advertising has considerable impact in shaping our awareness of cars and culture, then young women of the muscle car era could have very well imagined themselves as owners of Panther Pink or Passion Purple muscle cars. While most women lacked the financial means to purchase such vehicles in their youth, many, as aging baby boomers, have now acquired the means to own and drive the car they desired over 40 years ago.

Prospect

Bayley, S. (1986). Sex, drink and fast cars. New York: Pantheon Books.

Clarke, D. (2007). Driving women: fiction and automobile culture in twentieth-century America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Genat, R. (2010). Woodward Avenue: cruising the legendary strip. North Branch, MN: CarTech.

Walsh, M. (2006). At home at the wheel? The woman and her automobile in the 1950s. Paper presented at The Third Eccles Centre for American Studies Plenary Lecture given at the British Association of American Studies Annual Conference.

Witzel, M.K. & K. Bash. (1997). Cruisin’: Car culture in America. Osceola, WI: MBI Publishing Company.

Car Advertising and the Woman Driver

1983 Buick Regal Ad.

In an article posted a couple of years ago, Jalopnik blogger Elizabeth Blackstock discussed the lack of automotive advertising directed toward women. Although, as she noted, women compose over half of licensed drivers, 62 percent of all new cars sold in the US are purchased by women, and 85 percent of car buying decisions are made by women, advertising most often portrays the universal driver as male. When women are featured in car commercials, it is most often in the most stereotypical of roles. As Blackstock writes, “In the off chance that women are driving—sheʼs with her female friends staring at Ryan Reynolds, sheʼs picking the kids up from soccer practice, sheʼs by herself, or sheʼs marketing (dear God) car insurance. Youʼll be bombarded with those before you get one ad telling you to defy labels and pick the vehicle that truly suits you.”

The root of automakers’ failure to advertise to women is, plainly stated, masculinity. Car manufacturers are uneasy when automobiles become associated with femininity and the female car buyer. As I argue in my article about the chick car, women’s attraction to a particular automobile causes members of the male population to question the car’s technology. As the article states, “The assumption that women lack technical expertise creates a reverse kind of logic in the minds of many male consumers. They believe that since women cannot appreciate the finer technical characteristics of a car, such as power, handling, and performance, the cars women purchase must be technologically deficient. Women’s approval, in the minds of many men, leads to the devaluation of the car” (525). Consequently, the majority of cars that are, in fact, marketed to women are those of little interest to men.

This practice of selective car marketing is not a recent phenomenon. Over 35 years ago I worked in the creative department at a Detroit automotive advertising agency. My [female] partner and I were assigned the Buick Regal, which had been designated as the “woman’s car.” This classification was not due to its popularity among female consumers nor to any “female friendly” automotive features. Rather, it was because sales figures for the outdated Regal were dropping. Reconfiguring the Regal as the Buick offering especially appropriate for the woman driver was a dubious strategy to reinvigorate the brand. Traditionally, automakers have attempted to market unpopular cars to women when “authentic” automobile aficionados –  male drivers – would no longer buy them. 

Since the Regal held no apparent benefit for the woman driver, we decided to invent one. My partner and I put a clever spin on a tired female stereotype which suggests that attractiveness and brain power are mutually exclusive. Both the print ad and the television commercial feature a blonde, professional-looking woman posed next to a 1983 Regal. The print headline – “Good Looking Outside, Good Thinking Inside” – relies upon an often used and effective advertising strategy which calls upon a common positive attribute to link the product and the person who uses it. In this case, the line could be talking about the automobile or the woman standing beside it. The ad copy goes on to expand the misconception often applied to women – “that someone, or something, that’s got a lot in the good looks department, may be lacking in the good thinking department” – to include the smart and stylish Buick Regal. It mentions the beauty of the vehicle’s exterior, while also remarking on the vehicle’s powerful engine and intellectually designed interior, intimating that the woman who drives it is attractive, powerful, and intelligent as well. 

While I don’t recall the exact words of the television commercial, a similar message was delivered by the same woman featured in the print ad. The technique called upon was what is known in the ad community as a “talking head” – the actor delivers the entire commercial speaking directly to the camera. The 30-second commercial ends on a somewhat prophetic note, as the spokeswoman turns toward the imagined audience and remarks,  “Whoever’s in charge at Buick; she must really be something”. Who knew?

Although this campaign for the Buick Regal was created primarily to address an automotive sales issue, it did, at least, noted an automotive blogger, construct the female consumer as “classy, smart, and hard-working” (Kubin-Nicholson). The same could not be said for automotive advertising today. Women are stuck in minivans while the auto industry, ever fearful of offending the male customer, just keeps marketing cool cars to the guys.

As Blackstock notes, advertisements have an effect on the people who see them. As she writes, “If we’re bombarded with car commercials catered specifically to men […] 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.” It’s a cycle that keeps repeating itself. Blackstock asks, “when do the girls get to take the wheel?” I enthusiastically echo her sentiments.

Blackstock, Elizabeth. “If Half the U.S. Drivers are Women, Why Aren’t Auto Manufacturers Doing a Better Job of Marketing to Them?” jalopnik.com  8Aug 2018.

Kubin-Nicholson (blog) “The Evolution of Car Ads.” Kubin.com 13 Apr 2013.

Lezotte, Chris. “The Evolution of the Chick Car: Or Which Came First the Chick or the Car?” The Journal of Popular Culture 45.3 (2012): 516-531.

Lezotte, Chris. “McCann & Me: One Woman’s Experience in Detroit Automotive Advertising.” Manuscript in Press, Automotive History Review.

What Women Want

Advertisement for the 1955 Dodge La Femme

A recent article on Hagerty.com looked back at a notable and somewhat notorious failed attempt of an American automaker to develop an automobile specifically for the woman driver. In 1955, Chrysler introduced La Femme, with the intention of directing a perceived wealth of “lady-dollars” to its rebranded, repainted, and reappointed Dodge Royal Lancer. The thinking – by the group of male engineers, designers, and marketers –  was that women would be innately attracted to an automotive product and package that included a heather rose and pearl paint application, brocatelle upholstery, accompanied by a complement of accessories that included a matching lipstick case, cigarette lighter, compact, change purse, rain cape, rain hat, umbrella, and purse, all coordinating with the Jacquard car interior. Not surprisingly, women’s response to La Femme was lukewarm at best. After a two year production run with only 1500 cars sold, the pink and white behemoth drove off quietly into automotive history.

This was not the first, nor the last, attempt by auto manufacturers to designate a particular vehicle as the “woman’s car.” In the early auto age, when the introduction of the fast and powerful gasoline automobile threatened the future of the electric car, automakers rebranded the electric as perfectly suited for the woman behind the wheel. The qualities that differentiated the electric from its gas-powered successor –  clean, quiet, easy to handle, stylish, and with limited power and range – were promoted as appropriate for the “feminine” characteristics of cleanliness, physical weakness, and domesticity. However, although Clara Ford was gifted an electric vehicle by her auto mogul husband Henry, the majority of driving women desired the power, performance, and range of the gasoline powered automobile. It wasn’t long before women passed over the electric in favor of the ever-expanding lineup of combustion engine cars.

During the 1980s, car manufacturers began to consider women as a potentially important demographic for trucks and vans. Yet rather than addressing women as serious consumers, advertisers once again called upon “feminine” stereotypes to promote vehicles to women. Because the Chevy S-10 Blazer was purchased primarily by men, marketers believed that a “pink truck” campaign would convince potential female customers to consider the off-road vehicle. As Ella Howard writes, “although trucks are often associated with masculinity, readers here saw one bathed in pastels, and were assured that a woman driving a Blazer need not be unfeminine” (137). Women in the market for a vehicle, however, found the use of pastel colors and “other gimmicky features” in these advertising attempts to be offensive and condescending. If women did, in fact, purchase a Chevy Blazer, it was in spite of, rather than due to, the stereotypical visions of gender reflected in the print advertising campaign. 

In my own work on women’s involvement in various car cultures – including chick cars, muscle cars, and pickup trucks – I discovered that what a woman wants in a vehicle is personal. Whether looking for an automobile that is sporty, tough, powerful, or simply fun to drive, female motorists make choices based on their own preferences, needs, and desires. While women – at some point in their lives – may adhere to gender prescriptions in the purchase of a certifiable “mom” vehicle – i.e. wagon, minivan, crossover, or small SUV – when freed from parental responsibilities, or in defiance of them, they are likely to select vehicles that offer independence, autonomy, and empowerment. Rather than being seduced by a pretty paint job or feminine accoutrements, they drive off in a vehicle that says “this is who I am.”

Over the past century, auto makers have been slow to understand that it is difficult, if not impossible, to produce a vehicle specifically for the woman driver. As I have learned in my various explorations into the relationship between women and automobiles, “what women want” is to make their own choices about who they are and what they will drive.

Howard, Ella. “Pink Truck Ads: Second-Wave Feminism and Gendered Marketing.” Journal of Women’s History 22.4 (Winter 2010): 137-161.

Hunting, Benjamin. “How the 1955 Dodge La Femme Missed the Mark on Designing Cars for Women.” Hagerty.com 10 Feb 2020. Accessed 18 Feb 2020.

What are your feelings about a ‘woman’s car’? Is there such a thing? What are the qualities that make a car appealing to the woman driver? Your opinions are welcome!