A look back at retro automotive ads reveals a disturbing tradition of projecting machismo and sexist marketing to both sexes.
There’s nothing like a trip down a vintage advertising memory lane to make one realize how far we’ve come (and how far we’ve got to go) when it comes to gender equality.
Let’s take a look at some vintage car advertisements to get an idea of how car manufacturers are marketing to men (although women are buying new cars over 60 percent of the time today, Forbes says).
The ads got off innocently enough in the early 1900’s. They were sensible and fact-driven, sometimes as plain as the key message, “Hey, it is better than a horse!”
But, as Kea Wilson so astutely and wittily assesses in her recent StreetsBlog article: “For almost as long as there were cars, automakers have treated men as their primary customer— even as the feminism movement’s gains placed more and more women in control of their own checkbooks.”
Cadillac Automobile Company / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
When the public became persuaded that cars were a better investment than horses, it was a lot more gendered marketing. Women were now factored into the equation, but mainly as housewives who wanted a car to more easily get their housework done and errands done. Men were told to treat the car as a possession, a key to adventure, and the bourgeois path to a successful life, on the other hand.
Throughout the mid-century, Wilson credits NASCAR with concentrating on the energetic individual, rather than on the dull ole’s family: “With NASCAR’s increasing popularity in the 1950s, the tone of car advertising took a sharp left turn away from the reliable family sedan and towards glamorous individualism and athletic results.”
“She costs so little to keep happy.” Yuck. But wait, it gets worse!
We are now entering the dark ages starting in the 1960s, widely known today as “toxic masculinity.” Modern ads started to dredge all sorts of stereotypes and clichés that were, at best, clearly dumb, and at worst, extremely offensive.
Wilson argues that “the language used by such advertisements is not only meant to target men. It uses the worst elements of the persistence of toxic masculinity in our society to exploit men, as well as people of every gender who buy into toxic male society— and those behaviors spill out into the field of car buying and into the community itself.”
Apparently the guy in this ad has an affair with his… car?
This term is bound to rile up a lot of people, but it isn’t a blanket attack on all men. Rather, it looks at how society both encourages and punishes men for failing to adhere to a very strict set of expectations, which is very gendered. Toxic masculinity affects all involved: from children of both sexes to adults (yes, nature itself, read on!)
Wilson of Streetsblog gives this excellent definition of car advertising:
Another classic example of toxic masculinity: defining a man’s worth by his ability to utterly dominate nature, regardless of how destructive it is to the ecosystem. See: this truly insane 1966 ad, for the man who just wants to run over an endangered species, scrape it off of his grill, and…eat it.
When you think of risky and damaging car behavior, one thinks of speed, cut-off, inability to use turn signals, and tailgating— essentially all high-risk behaviors that are still glorified in today’s car advertising. With pedestrian and bicycle deaths rising by a whopping 53 per cent in just the last ten years, a cultural change is urgently needed. Sure, advertisements aren’t actually driving the vehicles, people are, but marketing campaigns show both our present and aspirational car culture — most of which is terribly unhealthy.
Have we come a long way from the patriarchal advertisements of the 1960s? Yes and no. They may not be as overtly sexist / racist / classist / ableist as they used to be, but they’re still out there, flourishing in their unwakefulness. Only check out this bicycle safety ad for 2019 from none other than the transport ministry in Germany. And bike helmets aren’t resistant to these stupid shows of obsolete attitudes.
Automakers and marketing companies, wise up. Let’s do better. Be polite and courteous to all passengers. Avoid perpetuating negative and misleading assumptions about gender. Although this sort of macho marketing can seem insignificant in contrast, if we really want safer streets for everybody, this is another piece of the puzzle.
Even if you have metal tanks like these that continue to be designed, purchased, and celebrated, it’s going to be an uphill fight for those of us out there in the streets.
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