The Lifting of the Chick Car Curse

When it comes to selling cars to women, automakers have fumbled through decades of pink cars, code words and patronizing campaigns. But change is afoot.

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Here’s a conundrum: Women buy 65% of all new cars and influence at least 80% of all vehicle purchases in the U.S., but most car ads brazenly target men. We’ve all suffered through this type of commercial. The automobile is evoked as a steel titan dominating the pavement while dude rock blares in our ears.

It doesn’t make sense. Women control more than $13 trillion in personal wealth, double what they had in 1995, according to the Federal Reserve. Women also show the highest consumer growth in two of the fastest growing segments in the auto industry, small cars and green cars, according to the research firm Auto Pacific. Perhaps most important of all, there are now more lady drivers than male ones. A new study by the Transportation Research Institute revealed that in 2010 women zoomed past men with 105.7 million licenses compared to their 104.3 million.

Yet still car ads don’t dare whisper our names. Why not?

Two words: “chick car.” The slur is often aimed at the Volkswagen Bug or Mini Cooper, both prized by women for their cuteness. According to Tara Weingarten, former car columnist for Newsweek and founder of Vroom Girls, “Car companies still believe that if one of their cars is labeled a ‘chick car,’ men won’t want to buy it.” It’s a sentiment shared by Hollywood. In The Other Guys, bro cop Mark Wahlberg looks aghast at Will Ferrell’s Prius and says, “I feel like we’re literally driving around in a vagina.” Hey, at least it’s an eco-conscious one. 

So the auto industry resorts to one or two strategies. Either market the car to men with the hopes women will come along too, or speak to women in code.

“In advertising, ‘family’ is often the code word for women,” says Joni Gray, a longtime automotive journalist who has also worked in marketing at Mazda, Hyundai and Honda. Gray is a principal member of Heels and Wheels, a coalition of women whose mission is to help the auto industry more effectively engage and sell to the female demographic – and that includes examining advertising lingo.

Code words can backfire. The family-friendly minivan, for example, could announce that a woman has become, as Gray puts it,  “a baby-making machine with no sexuality.” No wonder the SUV swooped in, offering the same room for the kids but in a sporty, sexy package. 

The problem for the car companies is that when they do talk directly to women, they’re often ham-fisted or patronizing. Just look at the history – the sins of the auto industry are legion. Telling us in 1966 that the Ford Mustang will nab us a husband (see commercial below). Assuming we don’t want a stylish ride just because we procreated (too many minivan ads to single out). Making it pink (from the 1955 Dodge La Femme to the 2012 Honda Fit She’s in Japan). And let’s not forget the fear-mongering, like when Volvo urged women in a 1991 issue of Harper’s to buy for the safety of their unborn fetuses — because, you know, the fetuses should have a say in all this, too.

All of these botched concepts came from the idea that women and men want different things in cars. And actually, Auto Pacific’s research shows that women do prioritize a few features more than men – safety, fuel-economy and eco-friendliness rank higher for women while men are more concerned with power and fun gadgets. But it’s not a huge gulf. If men and women’s preferences aren’t all that different, marketing as if women have radically different desires doesn’t really make sense.

Kristi VandenBosch has worked in automotive marketing for more than 20 years with a specialty in marketing to women (disclosure: she also consults with DAME). She says it took a while for the industry to “get past its belief that men and women needed different ‘things’ in cars.”

“Marketing to women,” VandenBosch says, “has changed dramatically over the last 10 years.” And though there will always be missteps, it’s changing for the better. Some car companies actually treat women with nuance and respect even when employing code words or appealing to men. Both needs – to keep men listening while not excluding women – can be met in the same ad but it’s a tricky balance.

Take the Honda CR-V, the best-selling SUV in the country. According to a gender survey by, the CR-V – like the rest of the compact SUV segment – has a slight edge with women. To promote the CR-V’s new redesign this year, Honda teamed with advertising firm RPA to create “the Leap List” campaign.

“We’re focusing on those couples buying a first house, getting married or having a baby,” says Mike Accavitti, Honda’s vice president of national marketing operations. Accordingly, Accavitti said the ads “don’t target women as much as couples in transition mode” – but he also said “we used female talent in most of our spots because it was couple-focused.” (Using female talent, including celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, is a common way to draw in women.)

“Couples” sounds like another code word, but the commercials happen to address women thoughtfully. One TV spot shows a man proposing, followed by the woman contemplating all the things she still wants to do – hike the Appalachian trail, finish her short film and so on. Though it’s worth noting that she can accomplish those goals after marriage too, the commercial acknowledges a young woman’s independent spirit, a rare gesture in advertising, automotive or otherwise.

Another “Leap List” commercial shows a man contemplating all the things he wants to do before he and his wife have a baby – and his list is similar to the woman in the prior commercial.

Honda hopes to accentuate that common ground between the sexes. Echoing what the industry has learned the hard way, Accavitti says, “men and women appreciate the same things in their cars. We’re really not that different. And if you resort to clichés about women or men, that’s a death knell for the product.”

The Chevy Malibu, on the other hand, announces its feminine bona fides, for better or worse. Part of its campaign for the retooled mid-size sedan for 2013 is to talk about the female engineers who improved upon the car, a strategy Ford used with its Windstar minivan in 1999. One aerodynamics engineer, Suzanne Cody, says she drew upon her experience as a single mom concerned about gas prices as she worked on the Malibu’s fuel economy.

But do these personal testimonials work? “The problem with the Chevy Malibu campaign is that these are all low-level women,” Weingarten says. “These are not chiefs of design, chiefs of engineering. It makes women seem marginalized.”

Another cornerstone of the Malibu campaign has also caught flak – a line of Malibu-inspired frocks designed by Isaac Mizrahi. Autoblog writer Jonathon Ramsey writes that he thought the partnership was a joke dreamed by The Onion.     

The most effective way to target women may simply be to go where they are. Malibu currently has ads in most of the major women’s magazines. Social media is used by more women than men and is key to the marketing approach for Honda. The CR-V has a page on Pinterest.

For some marketers, aligning a car with women’s causes and/or interests is a way to create affinity. In 1996, the Detroit-based Harris Marketing Group developed Concept:Cure, GM’s groundbreaking partnership with the fashion and sports industries to raise money for breast cancer research. The five-year initiative raised more than $3 million and served as a blueprint for other like-minded campaigns to follow, such as the Mercedes-Benz special edition S550, which was created to raise money for breast cancer. (Mercedes also courts women with its sponsorship of Fashion Week in New York.)

“It’s about supporting causes that are important to women in ways that are meaningful, relevant and authentic,” Harris CEO Janice Rosenhaus said. “If it’s not, women will see through it immediately.”

As car consumers, women are being considered more than ever before but it’s with a fine brush, not a suffocating pink blanket. The industry is adapting, however slowly, to the increasing power of women as consumers and drivers. Car companies would be wise to embrace the growing demographic with a deft touch – and just a little less dude rock.

“Women are not one big personality,” Weingarten said. “You couldn’t market directly to women and expect success. To market to women, just say how fun the car is and we’ll figure the rest out for ourselves.”


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