No Boys Allowed: The History of Marketing Cars to Women
Car marketing for women has a history of being weird. You would think since women weigh-in on 80% of car purchasing decisions, the automotive industry would’ve figured out how not to treat them as the exception.
Regardless, there is a tremendously long and bad history of sexist car advertisements and marketing, and way too many atrocious pink and purple cars.
Segment Marketing by Gender in the Automotive Industry
Let’s start with some more modern examples of attempts to make women-only cars.
Cosmopolitan Seat Mii
In 2016, Cosmopolitan partnered with Seat to release the Seat Mii. Cosmopolitan called it "daring and edgy"...I'll let you be the judge. Drivetribe calls it "nonsense," and I would agree. This car features headlights that mimic eyeliner and wheels that are "jewelled" and "bi-colour." Unsurprisingly, a lot of women did not like it and Cosmo clarified that it was designed for Cosmo readers...which is also insulting but also not surprising.
Let me tell you...it is really fun to try to dig and find information about these failed marketing attempts that companies have since tried to cover up. In 2013, Daihatsu had a makeup nail polish feature for choosing your car color. Many reverse image searches later, I finally came across some screenshots.
My personal favorite is the photo on the right above, which reads "Electro-mirrors that always highlight your best side. Side mirrors that move with electronic precision mean you can catch their stares as you drive by." How did they know? That is exactly why I want mirrors on my car!
The Daihatsu Sirion also came with a chance to win a shopping spree and was advertised at malls! How chic!
The Daihatsu Sirion is a Kei Car, which basically means it's small and cute, and they are fairly popular in Japan. 2/3 of Kei Car drivers in Japan are women, but for some reason that is not enough and there is a continual push toward segmenting these cars increasingly toward women. My hypothesis is that this has to do with a declining number of drivers in Japan, and the fact that about 9% fewer women drive compared to men.
In 2012, Honda decided to make moves and rebrand the Honda Fit as “She’s.” “She’s” pink and has air conditioning that reduces wrinkles and a UV shielding windscreen.
However, there is not much information about this car after 2013, and it turns out it flopped long-term (at least at first, Honda said they saw success).
CNN said, “when we asked if a Honda executive really did tell a Japanese newspaper that the colors are meant to ‘match a woman’s eye shadow,’ we’re told yes – with no tinge of regret that some women might find such a comment offensive.”
I, too, have been immeasurably disappointed by my car not matching my eyeshadow.
Jezebel put it beautifully (never thought I'd say that): "there are two dilemmas that we must face. First, the She's is only available in Japan. Secondly, none of us know how to drive."
Let’s go back in time a bit further. The Honda She’s regretfully came to be despite a similar, previous failed lesson. The 2007 Mitsubishi Bloom Edition, complete with makeup mirrors.
I could not find a lot of information about its reception, but given that 65% of purchasers of that Mitsubishi model were women already, I don’t think that was a necessary marketing move, and it clearly wasn't because it didn't work.
Ford Windstar & Maytag Collab
If we look back a little further, Ford & Maytag partnered and in 2000 manufactured this abomination of a prototype. Although at first glance you might think a washing machine, trash compactor, and built in Nintendo-64 would be cool, the market begged to differ.
A lot of parents know that cars can become homes on wheels, but that is certainly not the only thing cars are good for and these features were too niche and a little bit off-putting.
We could've learned this lesson in 1955, but regretfully, we didn't. The Dodge La Femme 1955 was sold with coordinating accessories. Even in 1955, women weren’t into that and it was discontinued in 1957.
Takeaway about Gender Marketing in the Automotive Industry
What do the above cars all have in common? None of them are currently in production.
It is also worth noting that this also does not work in reverse. Do you remember 2011’s “Are You Tough Enough for Chrysler’s ‘Man Van’?” That campaign flopped. Clearly, people do not want gender-segmented cars.
Ending Gender Stereotyped Car Advertising while still Considering Women
Despite these aforementioned abominations, not everyone has gotten it totally wrong. Volvo’s Your Concept Car, or YCC, was revolutionary, and they are a company that has truly tried to make things different for women drivers and passengers long-term (LINK TO MY OTHER). Volvo saw a gap in the market and set an all-woman team, but when asked about design prospects, they said, “it will be anything but cute.”
Volvo: “without actually bringing a car to market, they mercifully avoided creating a pink car.”
Some people received that car negatively, however, and thought that the parallel parking feature was sexist. One of the team members mentioned that the automatic transmission wasn’t invented because men couldn’t drive stick.
In fact, they posed the new features differently via a survey and men tended to vote for the same features that the YCC introduced: more storage, parking assist, more ergonomic seats, what’s not to love?
The YCC also had seats designed for if you have a ponytail, which some men may not buy a car for, but luckily a ponytail is not required to operate this vehicle. Regardless, marketing it as a car by women for women did lead to balking from both sides. It is similar to the old idea of marketing manual transmissions to men and automatic transmissions women–you piss off people who want the other in the process. People’s car needs are so varied, and no one’s desires are that niche or different from each other’s.
Attitudes toward Women in the Automotive Industry
I hate to say it, but the automotive industry has always been a man’s world. I believe Katherine Parkin put it best: "the public response to women behind the wheel has always been skepticism." This is certainly not deserved, as women comprise only 29% of car accident fatalities while men comprise 71% of car accident fatalities, despite car safety favoring men significantly.
Going to leave an excerpt from Parkin’s book, Women at the Wheel: A Century of Buying, Driving, and Fixing Cars because she explains the atrocities better than I ever could:
“Many companies proudly asserted that their designers used paper clips or glued-on fake nails to test their new models. In 1996, Cadillac described their male engineers donning paper-clip nails as “part of a dedicated effort to better reach women customers.” In 2002, the line director for full-sized trucks had a hundred male General Motors employees “wear skirts made from plastic garbage bags and high-heeled shoes, sport long fake fingernails, and carry a purse and a baby doll” in an exercise called “Mr. Mom.” Along with pregnancy suits and short skirts, male engineers continually claimed in press releases to approximate the female experience but mainly revealed how few women worked on car design and how superficial all of the carmakers’ efforts to appeal to women tended to be."
Let's take a look at this 1976 ad for similarly gross attitudes:
And women's response:
Clearly they didn't like it. But what on earth else could women possibly want? Clearly a pink car is the only possible answer.
Attitudes about helpless women drivers were not always so bad.
The full version reads, “Somewhere west of Laramie there’s a broncho-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I’m talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that’s a cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and action when he’s going high, wide and handsome. The truth is–the Playboy was built for her. Built for the lass whose face is brown with the sun when the day is done of revel and romp and race. She loves the cross of the wild and the tame. There’s a savor of links about that car–of laughter and lilt and light–a hint of old loves–and saddle and quirt. It’s a brawny thing–yet a graceful thing for the weep o’ the Avenue. Step into the Playboy when the hour grows dull with things gone dead and stale. Then start for the land of real living with the spirit of the lass who rides, lean and rangy, into the red horizon of a Wyoming twilight.”
If we say never mind that the car was called Playboy, this empowering advert is reminiscent of a Taylor Swift song and embodies freedom, not weakness. This car was marketed solely toward women, and women responded to the ad quite well. Sadly Jordan did not survive into the 1930s as a small company, but this advertisement changed the game and inspired many women: “'I do not want a position with your company. I just want to meet the man who wrote that advertisement. I am 23 years of age, a brunette, weigh 120 pounds and my wings are spread. All you’ve got to do is say the word and I’ll fly to you,' one woman wrote in a letter to Jordan."
Jordan wasn't the only company working with empowering ads in the 1920s:
"The Car for the Girl in Business," now this is what women want! How have we strayed so far from God’s light?!
There is nothing wrong with being domestic. But it’s not a woman’s only reason for needing a car and car companies need to stop treating it as such.
As far as automobile marketing toward women, we seem to eternally cycle within this uncomfortable limbo of going backward and forward in time. The 1920s were a great time for women empowerment as drivers, and yet the 1950s were incredibly depressing and as far as car marketing goes, I still do not think we have recovered.
In late 1996 Cadillac was unironically “dedicating itself to understanding women” by taping paperclips to their nails. I was born in 1997, so apparently I am from the Stone Age. In the early 2000s, we can still see from east to west examples of incredibly gender stereotyped prototypes and production models which fell short of expectations. And in 2011, as if cars were not catered enough to men, one of the few cars that is not designed with “manly” in mind, that also flopped, showing that we should abandoned heavily gendered car marketing altogether.
What women want is actually pretty simple–we are not the exception or unusual or some strange creatures. Some of those wild flops were teams even led by women. Don’t think too hard. Today’s women, and I would argue the women of any era, want to be considered, not condescended to. Cars shouldn’t be super polarizing. Women want cars for many of the same reasons that men do, and women don't need special features in cars because they can't do the same things as men. Women want subtle functionality that better addresses their needs, such as better visibility, not gimmicks like matching lipstick.
Women are involved in 80% of car purchase decisions in the US. Outside of the US this has also been increasing. However, the move should be to include women not cater to them specifically. The needs simply are not that different. Women may think about/ prioritize more storage slightly for example because they have purses, but men can benefit from more storage as well.
I would drive a pink car no problem, but I don’t need to have my outfit match. Automotive brands ought to stop treating women as strange creatures and overcompensating once they randomly remember that women are major decision makers in the purchasing of cars. It is my sincerest hope that car manufacturers soon discover that there is an in between pink cars for dumb lady drivers and cars that consider slightly more to female desires and safety.