Car Commercials: Widening the Gender Gap

I watch a lot of television, particularly during the "young adult" slots on the WB. I'm a big fan of Buffy, Dawson's Creek, and even Roswell. I've started noticing the commercials during these shows all seem to be about the same things: credit cards, cars, and movies. Aimed straight for the younger generation of viewers, these advertisements beg us to get out there and buy, buy, buy. Examining the car commercials in particular, I found that these advertisements not only sanction rampant consumerism, but also enforce gender stereotypes.

To research this project, I watched three different hour-long slots of commercial programming on two different weeks, giving me six hours worth of television shows spliced by commercials. I counted each car commercial, looking for the following criteria:

* If only one gender is shown in the car, which is it?
* If both genders are present in the car, who's driving?
* What is the gender of the person doing the voiceover?
* What images are displayed during the commercial?
* If a woman is driving, what kind of car is it?
* If a man is driving, what kind of car is it?

I assumed the results I would find would be biased, but I was unprepared for the degree to which it would be the case. In the six hours of programming, only one commercial showed a solitary woman driver. In every case where both genders appeared together in the car, the man was at the steering wheel. Every voiceover was male, including during the woman-driver commercial. To illustrate the manner in which these commercials participate in reinforcing gender roles, I'll describe three of these commercials in some detail, without naming the particular brand of car.

The Woman Driver

Synopsis: In this commercial, we see a woman driving down a winding mountain road in a minivan with her two young children playing in the backseat. A voiceover (male) appears and discusses how if you were traveling down a mountain road, wouldn't you want the safest car for your children? At this point the male child throws his toy airplane out the window, and it flies around the mountain curve, coming back in the open window and onto his lap. The mother smiles.

This commercial is gender-normative in several ways. First, it suggests that to appeal to its target market, twenty-something and thirty-something women, it should include references to safety and family, two chief concerns of women in this age group. While this may in many cases be true, these factors are also probably chief concerns among men with young children and families. However, at no point during the six hours of programming I taped is a man shown driving a minivan. This commercial serves to perpetuate not only the gender divide of minivans, but of domesticity as a whole--the woman is the one taking care of the children, and the minivan has become something of an extension of domestic today's version of the washer/dryer set. Overall, this commercial suggests that the only reason mothers buy cars is to transport their children safely--no leisure pursuit is discussed or allowed in this version of domesticity.

The Bickering Couple

Synopsis: In this commercial, we see a close-up view of a man driving a car while a woman (presumably his wife or girlfriend) sits silently in the passenger seat, glaring at him periodically. The car drives over extremely bumpy terrain, as shown by exterior shots, but the motion in the car itself is never jumpy or jarring. The man turns to his companion several times during the course of the commercial, looking apologetic and saying half-sentences including, "I didn't mean..." and "I'm sorry I..." The woman continues to look unhappy with him, and we again see an exterior shot of the car. A male voiceover appears and tells us "If it's a bumpy ride, it won't be our fault," speaking to the ability of the car to maintain stability even over rocky terrain.

This commercial insidiously enforces gender stereotypes, particularly toward technology. After the couple have presumably had a falling out, they must return home together. The man drives the car ("doing the work") while the woman punishes him for his actions by sitting in the car, passive and sullen. The common gender assumptions here are that 1) men make up for their transgressions against women more by action (driving her home) than verbally (see the above quotes from the apologetic man), and that 2) women who are angered by their mate punish him with the silent treatment and make him grovel for forgiveness. This portrait of life in a relationship does little to bridge the gender divide, instead contenting itself with a clever slogan.

The Rugged All-Terrain Vehicle

Synopsis: No people are shown in this commercial; a voiceover is only used to heighten the message the music is relaying. Without directly divulging the brand of car in this commercial, the music playing is the ubiquitous "Like a Rock" theme. The voiceover is male, highlighting the rugged, powerful features of the car we see during the commercial. The car itself turns, drives, and splashes through small streams, traversing a rocky, mountainous landscape with relative ease. The car shots are shown in slow motion, presumably to make the car look more stylish and capable. Though we never see a driver, the association of the voiceover with the automobile suggests that were we to see one, the driver would be male.

Perhaps more than the previous two, this commercial plays off our pre-existing gender stereotypes to sell its product. Of the eight people present in the room at the time that this commercial came on, only one of them that I polled thought the driver "might" be a woman. The rest all assumed, without giving the matter much thought, that the driver was male. This simple association alone speaks volumes to the work the car industry, as well as other technological industries, have already done to gender-type their products. Whenever we see a rugged sports utility vehicle with a powerful V6 engine, we assume (usually correctly) that the target audience is male. The wording of the commercial also codes for a male audience: words used in the voiceover, such as "powerful", "rugged", and "adventurous" all ring more masculine than feminine. The industry would be well-served, I think, to find more neutral words or to create more ground-breaking commercials in the hopes that these gender stereotypes and strong associations lessen in the future.

Tiffany Lennon

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last updated 5/7/00