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 Rather, it was because sales figures for the outdated Regal were dropping.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.

Margaret Walsh

From “Gender and Automobility: Selling Cars to American Women after the Second World War.”

Margaret Walsh was one of the first scholars I encountered as I began my academic journey into the subject of women and cars. When I began my investigation close to home, I discovered a Walsh article – “Gender and the Automobile in the United States” – on a major web-based project sponsored by the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the Henry Ford. Not only did this project provide a comprehensive look at the history of women’s automobility, but included an extensive bibliography for individuals – like myself – interested in pursuing this subject matter further. As Walsh was a historian at the University of Nottingham at the time of this project, I was surprised to discover that the foremost authority on the history of women and automobility in America was, in fact, British. As it turns out, Walsh received both her master’s and doctorate in the United States. So although she didn’t grow up immersed in American car culture, Walsh’s years in the US no doubt impressed upon her the historical and cultural significance of the automobile to American women’s lives.

The work for the University of Michigan-Dearborn project was Walsh’s first foray into US women’s automotive history. As she noted in an 2009 interview, the project was an academic ‘by chance’ opportunity. While Walsh’s academic background included extensive research into transportation history – particularly the intercity bus industry – she had not yet expanded her research to the automobile. This project provided her with the opportunity to engage in scholarship on a subject that was – at the time – virtually non-existent. Walsh gained a reputation as an expert in the field not only because of her work, but because she was one of the very who considered gender and the automobile to be a subject worthy of investigation.

After the success of this web-based project, Walsh went on to publish a number of articles devoted to the history of women and automobiles in the US. While she never published a book on the subject, Walsh’s journal articles – which address women’s automobile use in the post war era – are on the reading lists of every scholar with an interest in the relationship between women and cars. A dedicated and determined researcher, Walsh relied on both primary and secondary sources – printed material, advertisements, federal government documents, qualitative data, policy documents and reports – to construct fascinating histories of the woman driver during a particular era of American life.

While I am not a historian, but rather take a cultural studies approach to the women and car relationship, my work is often centered in the work of automotive historians who accumulated the materials and the knowledge to create a discipline. I am forever grateful to scholars such as Maggie Walsh who through their work, offer guidance on the journey into the rarely researched subject of women and cars.  

The Girl Behind ‘Throttle Gals’

About 10 years ago, while at a local car show, I came across a small display headed by a banner reading “Throttle Gals”. Parked next to it was a ’59 Chevy Impala, not the pristine and restored version that populates most automotive events, but a barn “find” with the patina of an old, well-worn automobile. As it turned out, both the display and the car were the property of one Doni Langdon, a self-described gear head who had taken on the challenge of producing Throttle Gals – a car magazine for women. Unlike the myriad of automotive magazines on the market at the time, which catered to the male enthusiast, the intended audience of Throttle Gals was women who love to drive, work on, race, and take apart hot rods, vintage cars, street machines, and motorcycles. Langdon believed there was an untapped market of female enthusiasts interested in learning about other women who shared a passion for cars, bikes, trucks – anything with an engine. Unapologetic, the magazine was conceived with a definite female point of view. And unlike the ornamental and objectified women that graced traditional automotive publications, Throttle Gals  featured real women – as writers, designers, illustrators, photographers, and the subjects of their own stories. As Langdon noted in an early interview, “These are real women. Everyone you see is with her vehicle — not a model and not someone in her husband’s or her boyfriend’s ride. It’s her pride and joy”.

I ran into Langdon nearly ten years later when we appeared as guests together on Autoline After Hours to discuss my newly released book on women and muscle cars. At the time she was recovering from a house fire, which destroyed much of the material for upcoming issues. However, since that time, Throttle Gals has emerged stronger than ever, with a growing list of sponsors, subscribers, and a thriving presence online, at car shows, and automotive events all over the country. Langdon has, in fact, achieved what many believed impossible – she has successfully created, promoted, and sustained a magazine specifically for the female car and motorcycle enthusiast. 

Langdon’s formula has been simple. She understands that women with an interest in cars and motorcycles are often dismissed or denigrated by the majority of the male car-loving public. Thus she provides content that connects with her female readers – in the form of mechanical advice, car buying tips, automotive news, as well the reporting of automotive events where other female gearheads gather. However, the stories that resonate most with her followers are those focused on women’s accomplishments – great and small – in the automotive/motorcycle worlds. As one who had been “kicked down” in the male automotive fraternity, Langdon created the magazine “to empower other women,” a sentiment which has appeared in the magazine and the website since the Throttle Gals inception. 

From one Motor City gal to another, I applaud Doni for realizing her dream, and look forward to another 10 plus years of Throttle Gals.

Proxmire, Chrystal A. “Ferndale Grad goes ‘Full Throttle’ with Motorcycle Magazine for Women.” theoaklandpress.com 12 Feb 2010.

Throttle Gals Magazine. throttle gals.com

The Common Language of Cars

Elana Scherr, Car and Driver columnist.

Car and Driver has a new columnist. A female columnist. In order to make an initial, positive impression on Car and Driver readership, Elana Scherr introduces herself through the common language of cars – “cars owned, cars driven, and cars much desired” (24). 

As a female columnist in a historically male genre – automotive magazines – Scherr’s decision to call upon the common language of cars is a wise one. The most obvious reason is that it identifies her as a “car person”. As a female, this is especially important. Women have traditionally been typecast as having little interest, or knowledge, about cars. Longstanding woman driver stereotypes suggest that women are inept, nervous, and cautious drivers, and when it comes to the automobile, are primarily interested in its functionality and use as a form of domestic technology. Scherr distances herself from this stereotype through referencing her mother – considered an outlier for her refusal to own a mom-approved station wagon or minivan – and by reflecting on her own varied and nontraditional automotive history. 

Calling upon the common language of cars also provides Scherr with a way to connect with fellow car enthusiasts, which includes, of course, Car and Driver readers. Scherr has always had a special fascination with old cars, making her particularly well versed in the finer points of a classic Dodge Challenger or Pontiac Trans Am. Ownership of classic cars provides Scherr with a legitimacy that goes beyond being a car expert. Rather, it identifies her as somewhat of a car historian, further bolstering her standing both the classic car community and the greater car culture at large. While Car and Driver caters primarily to the modern car enthusiast, Scherr’s recognized knowledge of the automotive past allows her to speak authoritatively of the present and future of automobility.

The common language of cars also offers a means to seek identity through automobiles. In my own research on the relationship between women and cars, I found that women often employ the language of cars to draw a connection between themselves and the vehicles they drive. Many of those I interviewed identified themselves by calling on characteristics they shared with their muscle car, chick car, or pickup truck. Referring to themselves in such a manner – as stylish, powerful, tough, or badass, as the case may be – suggests a deeper, more personal relationship to a vehicle than that of the average car owner. It establishes the individual as one with a special passion for the automobile. 

Scherr calls on the common language of cars to display her own passion for the automobile and to uncover that love and enthusiasm in others. As the Car and Driver bio notes, ‘[Scherr] discovered that she not only loved cars and wanted to drive them, but that other people loved cars and wanted to read about them.” Scherr’s goal, as written in her initial Car and Driver column, is to “share the delightful stories of people who build and race and design and create the cars we love” (24). While Scherr may not qualify as a genuine car expert in the eyes of the skeptical, calling upon the common language of cars allows her to connect, embrace, invoke, and engage with all who share an enthusiasm, zeal, and passion for any and all types of automobiles.

Women who write about cars will always be greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. In a culture that ascribes mechanical ability and automotive knowledge as natural male characteristics, women often find it necessary to devise strategies to enter the masculine automotive fraternity. As Scherr has demonstrated, fluency in the common language of cars provides an effective avenue to legitimacy in not only auto journalism, but in all automotive endeavors. I look forward to the many delightful stories Scherr will share in Car and Driver.

Car and Driver. “Elana Scherr, Contributing Editor.” caranddriver.com n.d.

Scherr, Elana. “Lingua Franca: I’m Elana, the New Columnist, and I Want to Talk About Cars.” Car and Driver 65.12 June 2020, 64.

Virginia Scharff

When Virginia Scharff submitted her dissertation in 1987, it was hard to imagine it would evolve into a book that would forever change the course of women’s automotive history scholarship. At the time it was written there was very little research devoted to the history of cars or car culture. That which existed was – not surprisingly – written about, by, and for men. However, as a young and developing historian, Scharff joined the wave of feminist scholars who began “writing women into history” during the late 1970s. Like those before her, she desired to examine an aspect of women’s lives which had heretofore been invisible. Because scholarship on women’s automobility was nonexistent, Scharff had some difficulty finding resources on which to base her research. Although she struggled to find data, Scharff’s determination and diligence paid off. Taking the Wheel: Women and the Coming of the Motor Age, published in 1991, was groundbreaking not only for its subject matter, but because it challenged and dispelled the “common knowledge” about women’s relationship to the automobile.

In the early motor age, automobiles were handcrafted, costly, and electric with limited range and power. Consequently, they were not taken seriously as modes of transportation but rather, served as expensive playthings for the rich. However, after the development of the gasoline-powered engine, and Henry Ford’s implementation of the assembly line, automobiles became faster, cheaper, less refined, and available and accessible to “every man.” The growing popularity of the gasoline-powered automobile in the early twentieth century resulted in a significant loss of market share for the manufacturers of electric cars. Seeking to maintain or increase its consumer base, the electric was repositioned from a symbol of wealth and status to a vehicle particularly suited for the woman driver. The gasoline automobile, on the other hand, as noisy, dirty, rough, and difficult to operate – as well as fast and powerful –  was positioned as the ultimate man’s car. 

Until Scharff entered the scene, students and scholars of automotive history uniformly accepted the notion that, because the electric had the feminine qualities women desired in a car, it was, in fact, women’s transportation choice. The report that Henry Ford purchased an electric for his wife Clara seemed to confirm this widely held view. However, as Scharff discovered in her research, the electric was promoted as the woman’s car not because women innately desired it, but because of the potential repercussions of women’s enthusiasm for the gasoline-powered automobile. Yet despite the efforts of automakers to market the electric as the “woman’s car,” female drivers of the growing middle class set their sights on the power and performance the masculine gas-powered automobile could provide. Seeking horizons beyond the confinement of domesticity, women envisioned automobility as the means to reach them. In the minds of many women, attainment of such lofty goals was not to be realized through the limited power of the meek electric, but rather, from behind the wheel of the noisy, dirty, and aggressive gasoline-powered automobile. 

When the electric eventually disappeared from the roadways, and it became clear that the female motorist had set her sights on the gas-powered car, auto industry decision makers were faced with a conundrum. While automakers recognized the lucrative possibilities of a female consumer base, they also feared an appeal to the woman driver would damage the longstanding association between cars and masculinity. The solution was to call upon the “vast, immutable, reassuring differences between men and women” as the means to divide automotive use by gender (115). The large, powerful vehicle was marketed to the male head of the household. And by promoting the smaller, less powerful, more practical vehicle as form of domestic technology, a tool that enabled women to fulfill their prescribed roles as wives, mothers, consumers, and caretakers, automakers believed they could appeal to the female consumer without alienating men.

Scharff’s notion that women’s car choices threatened the status quo – so much so that automakers had to develop marketing strategies to contain the woman driver – was both a revelation and confirmation to future scholars of women’s automobility. It changed the way historians and cultural studies scholars approached women’s relationship to the automobile. It altered how cars are marketed to women. And most importantly, it motivated scholars to continually question and challenge “common knowledge” about women and cars.

Although Scharff has since moved on from women’s automobility to other topics in women’s social history, her influence on those who study gender and automobiles today is both significant and ongoing. Those of us who write about women and cars are forever grateful for her determined and tireless efforts – while a young PhD student – to recover a missing – and revelatory – part of automotive history.

Do you have a favorite automotive author? Are you interested in automotive history, automotive advice, or just a good story about cars? Your comments are welcome.