On Sexism in Car Commercials: Still Going Strong

 Kyle Johnson[1]

The Mustang has changed a lot over fifty years. Sexism in advertising? Well, not so much.

This past week, we came together as a country to celebrate one of the most significant events in not only our collected history, but in the history of mankind (emphasis on the man): the 50th anniversary of the Ford Mustang. Look, let’s get one thing straight right off the not-at-all-phallic bat: the Mustang is the ultimate car for men. It is a take-no-prisoners, ask-no-questions, pedal-to-the-metal, four-on-the-floor, screaming-into-the-heavens and grabbing-your-junk-like-you’re-about-to-lose-it performance machine that may as well spew testosterone emissions from its not-at-all-phallic tailpipe.

On Sexism in Car Commercials

The 2015 Ford Mustang: Because you are already incredibly well-endowed, but you just really like fast cars

It’s only appropriate then that scores of Mustang lovers no doubt spent the anniversary of the beloved beast by doing manly things such as participating in hour-long keg stands, holding loud public conversations about their every sexual conquest in the backseat of a Mustang, and slapping one another on the back while making engine noises with their mouths between sets of tricep pulldowns at the gym.

If you’re a women who loves the Mustang, well, Ford and OPI[14] have come together to make you up some pretty nail polish. You know, because you’re a woman and you probably like that kind of thing.

On Sexism in Car Commercials


Now I by no means am trying to suggest that Ford itself has a culture problem. They were recently named one of the world’s most ethical companies[15], they’ve done a great deal of business with women-owned suppliers[16], and their Warriors in Pink campaign[17] has raised millions to help fight breast cancer. By all accounts, they’re an equal opportunity employer and I’m pretty sure they don’t give a rat’s ass who is buying their cars so long as they’re selling them in droves. They’re certainly not going to go the asinine route of Dr. Pepper and advertising their product as “not for women.”

On Sexism in Car Commercials

Spoilers: it’s also not particularly tasty.

On Sexism in Car Commercials: This Is Way Bigger Than Ford and Some Nail Polish

The whole of automotive industry on the other hand? Well, that’s an entirely different story. While women have fought against the tides and climbed the ranks over the years, the business is still a male-dominated one (stop me if you’ve heard that one before). Just when you think things are about to change for the better[18], you soon realize that they were only allowed to change so that men didn’t have to eat a proverbial bullet[19]. Women like Mary Barra are looked at as den mothers; maternal figures who have to strap on their Kevlar aprons and go clean up after the messes that others (mostly men) have made. At worst, they’re seen as second-class citizens who should always be about a half-step below their male counterparts.

On Sexism in Car Commercials


The automotive industry largely has no idea how to market their products toward women, which is why you see a number of advertisements repeating trends where: (1) women are objects[20] that male car buyers want to accumulate; (2) women are accessories[21] that make cars appear more attractive to male car shoppers; (3) women are seen as helpless[22] and entirely unaware of how the entire car-buying experience works; (4) women serve the primary role of minivan-driving mothers.

On Sexism in Car Commercials

And, of course, that charming old stereotype of women being simpletons.

Even when celebrities are called in for car adverts, the roles completely flip. Jeff Bridges lends his voice to Hyundai, John Cusak tells you all about why tofu can be damned[23] for Chevrolet, Will Ferrell hams it up for the Dodge Durango to great effect, and Daniel Craig smolders behind the wheel of a Land Rover[24]. And why not? They’re venerable men of the craft (well, Will Ferrell not so much). They are trying to sell you on a product with the appeal of their name and the respect it brings, and nobody has to get half-naked to do it (not counting Terry Crews, of course, but that man abhors shirts in the same way that your behind-the-curve Facebook friends hate Game of Thrones spoilers).

On Sexism in Car Commercials


What do women get? They get Brooklyn Decker running around in a bikini for Nissan and Kate Upton being objectified by a football team while the camera pores over every curve of her body and only occasionally glances at the Mercedes-Benz CLA. This is not advertising based on a name or even a modicum of respect. This is trying to get men to buy the car that is in the general area approximate to which Brooklyn Decker’s breasts are heaving.

On Sexism in Car Commercials

The opening shot of the Kate Upton ad is as subtle as every gratuitous boob shot in every horror movie shower scene ever.

On the rare occasion when a woman is used to market a vehicle toward other women, the results aren’t much better. Take Kate Walsh’s 2008 ads for the Cadillac CTS. In one, she says that the actual functions and features of a luxury car are supplemental to the all-important question of whether your car arouses you sexually. The implication is that the CTS is essentially some kind of $50k, four-wheeled sex toy.

In another, she lists some of her favorite things (aka things that other women probably like according to the male ad mule who likely wrote the script): “Gossip magazines, dark chocolate, Italian shoes.” She adds that the best part of driving the CTS is “pulling up to the boys club in one of these.”

Ostensibly, women only drive $45,000 luxury sedans because they help earn them more attention from men and get them better ready for their sex. At least Kate Bush was fully clothed in this commercial. And, hey, she was driving the car, which is a hell of a step up from that old Cadillac ad that suggested women should only be passengers.

On Sexism in Car Commercials

Please, come by your local dealership and spend an hour in the passenger seat of the 1969 Cadillac, but for the love of god, don’t you dare even think about driving it.

Who Eats Fish Sandwiches Like That? Seriously.

We all know that sex is a huge aspect of marketing products, even when it shouldn’t be. If anyone could properly explain to me why it’s necessary to shill fish sandwiches by having a bikini-clad model eat one in slow motion while arching her back in a not-at-all-suggestive manner, I sure would appreciate it. Never mind another brilliant Hardee’s ad that seems to suggest that a woman (even if it is a blue, shape-shifting mutant woman) can only properly enjoy one of their bacon-loaded burgers in the guise of a man. Because, you see, bacon is manly. So goddamn manly. If Dr. Pepper made bacon, they’d tell you that it’s not for women.

On the other hand, Jaguar’s “Good to be Bad” commercials for the F-Type are sexy. They are sexy because they’re cinematic and just so happen to feature one of the most dashing men alive (not to mention Ben Kingsley and Mark Strong, who are certifiably brilliant and sexy in their own right). Oh, and let’s not forget that the F-Type R Coupe is just kind of a badass car that could sell itself.

On Sexism in Car Commercials

Like you need any more reasons to want to buy this thing, holy crap.

But Tom Hiddleston doesn’t have to go shirtless in order to ooze sex appeal (although I’m sure a great many wouldn’t mind it); he is as magnetic and attractive in a well-tailored suit as any half-naked fish-sandwich-eating model, and he actually gets to…you know…talk.

And when Hiddleston talks, it’s with the kind of charisma that forces you to keep your eyes on him on the big screen. Even if he’s never driven a Jaguar in his life, you believe him as the spokesman for the brand. More importantly, you want to drive that car, and not because it’s incredibly bad-ass (it is). You want to drive it because you want to be charismatic and powerful like the way Tom Hiddleston comes off.

This is advertising well done. It drips sex without even trying. It doesn’t come across as forced or sleazy. It just makes you want to drive a car.

On Sexism in Car Commercials

It’s almost like you have a purpose for watching other than ogling!

Okay, You Can Keep Your Clothes On. Just, Ya Know, Touch It. Right There. That’s Good.

Since we’re talking about the Mustang (in some roundabout way), let’s make special mention of an ad for the 2015 incarnation that stars Sienna Miller[25]. It premiered on the day when the world first laid eyes on the new Mustang as an effort to entice European pony car enthusiasts.

In the pantheon of sexist car ads, this isn’t the worst, but it’s still indicative of the larger problem. The whole spot is centered around how sensually Miller caresses every aspect of the car. It’s how she runs her fingers across the Mustang emblem in the steering wheel, how she takes the shifter into her hand, and how she presses herself out over the shark-bite nose.

In this ad, Miller isn’t using her agency as a BAFTA and Golden Globe-nominated actress. She’s an accessory to the vehicle. You are implored to buy the 2015 Mustang because it is the object of Sienna Miller’s affections, the recipient of her touch, and you should want to own this car because it will, by proxy, make you desirable in her eyes.

The Cryptography of Sexism in Marketing

Yesterday, I found myself looking over the press release for the OPI Ford Mustang nail lacquer collection[26] and found a good deal of covertly diminutive language. Granted, there is nothing so bold in the press release that it screams sexist, but there are enough cues to see a pattern that’s existed for far longer than the iconic pony car.

One of the things that struck me as particularly off-putting thing about the press release for the OPI Ford Mustang collection of nail lacquers was not something said by a man, but rather this statement from OPI’s co-founder and executive vice president Suzi Weiss-Fischmann (emphasis mine):

Nail color, just like the car she drives, is the ultimate expression of a woman’s personality,” says Weiss-Fischmann. “Automobiles are synonymous with style, and there is a special kind of love affair between a woman and her car.”

On Sexism in Car Commercials

Like that one time Sherpa tried to tell women that their boobs were their best assets.

The implication that a woman’s personality could be summarized so simply by something as benign as the color of nail polish is ridiculous. Of course, there’s a lot that can be said here about the consumerist sentiment at work here—it’s all rather Fight Club-ian—but it’s hard to believe that someone with a brain in their head would legitimately try to sell a new line of, say, dress ties by telling their customers that the color tie they wear is the ultimate expression of their personality.

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