June 2, 2023

A Brief History of Feminism and Automotive Advertising

By Paula Borkmann

A symbol of independence and autonomy, it’s no surprise that the history of the car is so interconnected with that of the women’s rights movement. Over the last 100 years, the automotive industry has had to adapt to changing social norms and new markets.

The story of women in car advertising is long and complex. Efforts to target female consumers have ranged from the progressive and forward-thinking to the most obtuse and sexist. However, this history also provides essential context for understanding the way that car brands can continue to expand their appeal to become more inclusive and diverse.


                               1920s - 1930s 

Ford Campaign, 1926

In 1918, British Women won the right to vote. And in 1920, the American constitution was amended to the same effect. In the wake of Women’s suffrage, auto companies saw an opportunity to capitalise on the car as a symbol of female enfranchisement; offering independence and mobility.

Of course, not all women were afforded the benefits. For women of colour emancipation was already fleeting and laws remained to restrict their vote. As a result the car also became a symbol of privilege, advertised almost exclusively to the leisurely middle class. 

As would be the case for the next 60 years and more, whilst some women gained political freedoms they remained bound by feminine stereotypes. A telling example is the revival of the electric car in the 1920s. Quieter, slower, too heavy to climb hills, and with a shorter range; these cars were deemed more appropriate for feminine sensibilities. As Anderson Electirc Company advertised, it was ideal for the “well-bred” wife, helping her “preserve her her coiffure intact.” 

Even as the technology advanced it would take decades for the feminisation of the electric car to be overcome. Too easy to drive, too slow, and too quiet, the public perception of electric cars remained tainted by stereotypes. And this has arguably remained the case up until the recent glorification of Tesla’s electric models and of its founder Elon Musk. 

                             1940s - 1950s 

The 1955 Dodge La Femme: The "Woman's Car" That Came With A Purse
Dodge La Femme (1955) - The pink car was made specifically for women. Included was a purse and face powder that matched the interior, a lipstick and cigarette case and a comb. 

During and after the two World Wars, many more women started working. Mobilised to replace the male soldiers sent off to war, by 1945 women formed almost 37% of American labour. Despite entering the workforce in droves, however, many women still remained economically yoked to men, earning 53% of the pay of the men they replaced and reliant on a signature from their father or husband to to gain credit.

It was to this still-economically-dependent figure of the 'Housewife' that the car industry began marketing a ‘female’ driving experience. And, what do women want according to men? Makeup, mirrors, clothes, and of course all things pink!

The Dodge 'La Femme' model and Ford 'Motor Mates' car-coat series made it clear that automative companies still saw women as disinterested consumers. The experience of driving for women was not advertised for the independence it might afford them, but rather as yet another cosmetic accessory or domestic utility.

                                1960s - 1970s 

From Left: 'Take the Pledge', Ford (1969); 'The Mustang Pledge', Ford (1968); 'We Don't Make a Women's Car (Honda, 1973)

Feminism of the 1960s can be explored through the impact of three American women; Betty Friedman, Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe. Friedman theorised the Feminine Mystique, a social and cultural assumption that women are forever fulfilled by the housewife-mother role.

What were the symptoms of this mystique? Fatigue, tranquiliser and alcohol abuse. The cause? A pervasive and unexplained sense of dissatisfaction. And the result? Women who were more feminine and significantly sadder, exemplified in the writings and suicide of Sylvia Plath and Marilyn Monroe’s overdose. 

The effect of the feminine mystique was evident in the American consumerist behaviour; 30% of women dyed their hair blonde, and department store buyers reported that women had shrunk three to four dress sizes. Advertisers exploited the opportunity to sell products to unhappy housewives, and Ford was no exception.

The Mustang Pledge is an infamous campaign that mocked women with an ‘I will’ and ‘I will not’ rulebook, including stipulations such as “I will stick to my diet even though my Mustang’s Tilt-Away steering wheel is so adjustable”, and “I will keep the ‘helpless-female’ look by shifting manually only when I’m driving alone. All other times I will let the SelectShift work automatically”. 

The campaign belittled women by viewing them as inseparable from their duties as a house-wife, mother, and paragon of femininity. In the 1970s, however, Honda would break ground by making fun of this simplistic messaging with their campaign: 'We don't make a "woman's car"'.

These adverts zoned in on tired stereotypes that 'Women only drive automatic transmissions', before dissecting them to highlight how Honda did things differently. The brand understood that women might want a car that excites rather than bores. This tongue and cheek approach to subverting stereotypes is a great example of how to empower rather than patronise female audiences. It's a format that has been carried through into the present day by Ford's viral 'Men's only car' campaign for International Women's Day this year.

                               1990s - 2000s 

From Left: Vauxhall Corsa (1992); Daihatsu (1996); BMW (2008); Lexus (2012)

With the 90s came the third wave of feminism, and a new set of issues to tackle. Intersectionality and sexual liberation were on the agenda. Jumping on an influx of female-led sex positivity, the male dominated car industry adopted a new style of ads. Sex sells. But these strategies twisted the feminist message that women should be empowered to make choices about their own body into a monetised sexuality.

Whilst a positive highlight came with a Vauxhall corsa ad featuring Naomi Campbell, the first ad we’ve found to feature a woman of colour, its potential impact was dampened by her explicit objectification.

Exemplified by another hyper-sexualised Daihatsu advertisement, women were presented as a passive accessory, part and parcel of the car up for sale. It takes a single Google-search to find dozens more examples of this male-gaze-marketing. Other infamous examples might include the Honda Civic, Dodge Challenger, and a BMW ad released as recently as 2008, selling used cars via a sexist joke about women’s sexual purity.

                                2012 - present

In the 2010s the growth of the internet and social gave women the opportunity to share their stories and have their voices heard in a new way. A surge of online activism brought individual accounts of female marginalisation to the forefront. Receptive to this movement, and capitalising on the rise of long form YouTube content, female-focused car advertisements became big cinematic productions. 

Featuring a narrative about a life-long lesbian love affair which runs parallel to Renault Clio’s own history, ‘30 years in the making’ is a short film full of tender moments, drama, reunions, and a happy ending. Another ad committed to long-form storytelling is Volvo’s ‘Moments' campaign. Through a dramatic story of a near-miss car accident, the advert celebrates a woman’s autonomy, a rich life full of decision and choice. Utilising scare tactics its 'what if' structure also serves to demonstrate their enhanced safety feature, automatic brakes.

Whilst this commitment to female stories is admirable, the last four years have been characterised by seismic political shifts. The pandemic and the second wave of the Black Lives Matter movement have adjusted global priorities and prompted a feminist realignment with international and intersectional experiences. 

It is still to be seen how car brands might respond to a resetting of the feminist agenda. The Nissan #SheDrives campaign is one example of a more inclusive, authentic and creative world of car advertising. However, in general, many still view automative advertising as lagging behind the cultural moment. A survey conducted in 2018 revealed that 77% of women and 58% men are put off by gender stereotypes in car advertising.

If the history of automative marketing reveals anything, it is the need for car brands to continuously respond to the moment and reinvent themselves. Good intentions can only take you so far. If a brand wants to build a genuinely engaged audience they need to move with their consumers.

Shifting gears in pt.II of this TUNNELVISION series, we consider what a forward-thinking strategy looks like. The car industry has come a long way in its attitudes to gender, but brands shouldn’t revert to automatic: there’s still a long road ahead.


* indicates required