But sometimes, the disconnect is more serious. Marketers I spoke with mentioned high-up trunks that make it difficult for women to hoist heavy luggage, and nonadjustable gas and brake pedals, which force shorter women (and men) to crunch up close to steering wheels and potentially explosive airbags. In 2011 researchers at the University of Virginia found that women drivers are 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured in crashes, in great part because cars are designed to protect men’s larger bodies. The advertising falls short, too. Men get adventures in their car ads—epic treks along mountain passes, Kate Upton bursting from her tank top while prancing around a Mercedes. Even when they’re tasked with taking the kids for the day, as in this recent Hyundai ad, men get to break rules by taking the kids off-roading and racing motorcyclists. But advertisers seem to think women have no need for fantasy and instead, we get downtrodden realities—a mom dutifully carting the kids to hockey practice, a bunch of self-identified “housewives” fist-bumping because their kids finally think their car is “cool.”
All of which is what made those Cadillac ads from a few years back featuring a solitary, buff-armed Kate Walsh so powerful. The ads were the brainchild of a Boston ad agency that GM no longer works with, and they got tons of buzz by managing to be sexy in a way that appealed to both men and women. In one, Walsh speeds through a tunnel in a luxurious dark red Cadillac CTS, and asks, “When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?” In another, she lists her favorite things (dark chocolate, Italian shoes), and, as she slows down at a stoplight next to two suited men in another car, she adds, “and … pulling up to the boys club in one of these.” She grins at the men, and when the light changes, she peels away. I still remember the first few times I saw these ads. I wanted to be her.
Meanwhile, the Detroit auto show still poses scantily-clad women around its cars like Christmas ornaments. Ninety-five percent of new car dealerships belonging to the National Automobile Dealers Association are owned by men, which may be why as a woman you’d still “rather put out your eyes with steel needles than go buy a car,” says Jean Jennings, the editor-in-chief of Automobile magazine. Last year, Jennings launched a website, JeanKnowsCars.com, dedicated to demystifying the auto industry, and many of her readers are women. It’s telling that such a site is still necessary, and that it comes from a journalist, rather than from the industry itself.
We need more myth-busters like Jennings, because many of the basic historical assumptions about women drivers turn out to be wrong. Contrary to theories about cup holders and rosebud upholstery, the data shows that compared to men, women at least as educated in their purchases, less emotional in making them, and less concerned with aesthetics when they do.
For buyers under 35, women are more inclined to buy for reasons like reliability and fuel economy, whereas men are more drawn by exterior styling and an ineffable “fun to drive” quality, says Vicki Poponi, who heads product planning for American Honda Motor Co. And while information from Kelley Blue Book suggests that women use one less resource than men when researching cars, data from consumers taking over previously leased cars shows women are more likely to request inspections, while men are more likely to ask about the way a car looks. “Men are more emotionally driven,” Poponi says. “Women are more rational.”
Marti Barletta, a consultant in marketing to women, told me one of the reasons women have gained a reputation for caring about frivolous details is because they do so much research. By the time they arrive at dealerships, they’ve already logged countless hours online finding cars that satisfy their main criteria. Now, they’re picking through minutiae—what, precisely, makes the Nissan Maxima better than the Toyota Camry? (Could it be the number of cup holders?) These questions, Barletta says, contribute to an impression among salesmen that women care mostly about the little stuff. All of which is why Chevrolet’s recent union with designer Isaac Mizrahi felt so awkward. Last fall, Mizrahi designed a limited edition collection of clothing and accessories “inspired” by the 2013 Chevy Malibu. The idea was that Mizrahi’s skinny jeans and driving moccasins were somehow akin to the Malibu; heck, one might even wear them to drive said car. In videos promoting the effort, Mizrahi examined the closets of smart, stylish women, after which he took them for a spin in his Malibu, while praising its “gorgeous color” and the “red piping” on its leather seats.
I get it: Chevy wants to remake its staid image in hopes of becoming the choice of hip young consumers. But all that focus on upholstery winds up feeling retrograde. For an industry that talked down to so many of its consumers for decades, emphasizing fashion to women seems lazy, not fresh or fun. Maybe it’s time for car companies to wake up and smell the coffee.