Why automobile industry needs to drive better narratives in advertising…

Women in automobile

To accelerate the drive for gender inclusion in the automobile marketing industry, Social Samosa speaks to experts to find where lies the gap, how women want to be spoken to by automakers, and future of automobile advertising.

Come women’s day, brands of all kinds and sizes release empowering campaigns targetting women. However, from March 9th onwards, these conversations simmer down. Termed as ‘femvertising,’ while this phenomenon is not new, it continues to be a glaring pattern in automobile advertising, an industry that has been largely targeting men in ads. 

In its report ‘GenderNext,’ ASCI analyzed the representation of women in advertising. One of the major patterns, it said is, “Women’s Day seems to be a moment for many auto brands to include women more actively into their advertising in ways they are otherwise not. This seems to imply and reinforce the notion that women are not seen as an everyday aspect in the world of automobiles.”

Other patterns in automobile advertising include – objectified sizzle, wheel withholding, childlike passenger, lack of ‘handling’ of cars/roads, paired with auspiciousness, body doubles for gadgets, deprived damsels, and more.

Deep Seated Biases

The automobile industry is one of the most male-dominated sectors in the world. In spite of being one of the biggest employers in the private sector, only 1% of women showed interest in joining the sector in India, citing an unattractive environment for women.

Women driving cars in ads are a rare sight too.  

ASCI’s GenderNext study also said that until recently, in categories auto and finance, the woman was not as much missing as she was excluded.

Sharing what leads to these biases in ads, Mitali Srivastava Hough, National Planning Director, Famous Innovations said, “The problem arises from the toxic masculine history of automobile makers. Driving is a life skill. It continues to be a gender skill. Advertising agencies continue to feed this toxic narrative. Cars, technology and watches etc are seen as boys’ toys and are still being sold by using women as bait.” 

It’s a long-held stereotype that women are lousy drivers but reports continue to prove that wrong. As per recent statistics collected in India by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, fewer women than men are responsible for road accidents and the fatalities caused by them. 

Women have also been driving the purchase of an additional car in the family. Maruti Suzuki revealed that 49% of car buyers are in the age group of 26-35, 60% of which are women.

“Marketers need to realise that today women not only have the spending power, but also are a large segment for them. It’s in their interest to include them in their marketing plans and not just do lip service with a ‘pink’ campaign on Women’s Day,” Nisha Singhania, co-founder and director, Infectious Advertising shared with Social Samosa. 

Problematic Tropes

Over the years, not all automakers have not completely ignored women in their ads . However, they were often sexualised or were seen in the passenger’s seat.

The ASCI highlighted, “Perhaps the oldest trope in automobile advertising is to ‘place’ a woman next to a car. A typical pattern that is prevalent in many instances of car advertising where the woman does not appear as a mere passenger – but acts as an object of desire. The purpose of the ‘placement’ of the woman in these contexts seems to be to add a sizzle or succumb to the desirability of the man in the car.”

This trope tends to equate the automobile and the woman, both being portrayed as attractive property to be acquired/owned, erasing the subjectivity of the woman as a person. – ASCI Report

In 2013, which was probably the industry’s lowest point, Ford Motor Co. faced a lot of flak for a series of ads, showing caricatures of several celebrities behind the wheel of a Ford car with three women bound and gagged in the cargo bay.

Cab service Ola had compared its services to women. The ad, which was later taken down, said its services were cheaper on the mileage than demanding girlfriends in shopping malls.

It should be noted that the aforementioned brands have since changed their marketing strategy, recognising the need for inclusivity and sensitivity. 

Social Samosa went through one of the top three automobile companies’ YouTube channels to find out how many times women have been featured in their communication in the last 12 months. This is what it looked like:

We found that automakers do target women but it is limited to an average of three-four a year. If women feature in ads that are not meant for Women’s Day, they are almost always in the supporting role. 

A Few Good Ads

As women take up more space in the market share of leading automobile brands, advertising is changing gradually too. 

As per a report, women drivers exceed speed limits 12% less than male drivers and tend to practice hard braking 11% less than men. These insights led to the birth of Kotak General Insurance’s Drive like a lady campaign for women’s day in 2019. It has also extended the campaign this year.

A year ago, Ford India had also released an advertisement that featured women. 

Royal Enfield has released empowering campaigns for women time and again. Its popular film ‘Home’ did away with the common narrative in the industry that women riding bikes is ‘unconventional’.

Sharing what has led to biases in the industry and how it is shaping up now, Saumya Baijal, Senior Vice President and Head of Planning, Mullen Lintas Delhi said, Advertising is still done through the male gaze, and that is the gaze predominant in a patriarchal culture- of which advertising is a part. It is that gaze that is an issue- that still puts men and women into boxed roles that patriarchy seems fit- a man in the driver’s seat and a woman on the side or not at all. However, it has begun to change- Thar recently, is an example.”

There have been more brands that have tried to make a difference and include women in their ads over the years. 

Sharing a few examples, Mehak Jaini, Strategy Head, 22feet Tribal Worldwide VP – Strategy, DDB Mudra Group said, “I truly believe the world of Automotive advertising in India has been evolving beyond your stereotypical gender biases – with brands like Volkswagen, Skoda leading from the front. Not just from a marketing sense, but also at a product level – take for example the vanity mirror that was often found on the sun visor at the passenger side, is now seen on the driver side as well in many cars. For long, storytelling around cars has been about normalizing the notion that gender doesn’t make a driver –  Be it Volkswagen Polo’s Bluetooth ad with Maria Goretti over 10 years back, or the recent Skoda Kushaq India’s safest family ad where the mother is the driver on a family road trip.” 

To take another step forward, Jaini said that the country needs more of these frictionless stories.

“Lastly, automotive brands in India need to go a step further – not just for women drivers, but also women buyers – understanding the challenges and frictions across the purchase journey for women and finding novel solutions to the same, without undermining or preaching to women.”

The Future

In an in-depth report ‘Creating car advertising for women,’ former Senior Planner of Ogilvy, Peter le Boutillier had shared how Ford Fiesta’s magazine campaign led to a jump in its sales after including women. He shared that following the advertising campaign, the Si’s share of Fiesta sales reached 30% against an expectation of 12%. 

Automakers can easily gain more market share by targeting women and driving a more women-friendly marketing approach. 

Gajendra Jangid, Co-Founder and CMO, CARS24 is optimistic about the future of the industry. 

“In recent years, there has been a surge in the number of women participating in the automotive marketplace as both buyers and sellers, and this trend is only expected to grow further. The automobile industry has taken note of this important shift and is poised to create advertising campaigns that not only recognise women’s significant role in car purchasing but also actively appeal to their preferences and needs. By developing more inclusive and diverse ads that resonate with women, the industry will demonstrate its commitment to diversity and inclusivity, while also attracting a wider audience.”

According to a study conducted by global consumer research company Mintel, more than half of female car buyers said they want to see more female spokespeople, while more than two in five said they want to see more women featured in car campaigns. Female consumers want to be seen as individuals, not just mothers or wives. More than half of female consumers in their survey said automakers have outdated views on female car buyers.

As the industry moves forward, Singhania, too, is hoping to see more change in the future. 

“There definitely needs to be a change in not just the way auto advertising ignores women, but the way the world at large treats women drivers,” she said. 

Baijal highlighted how there’s a need for campaigns to be made from women’s perspective.

Women narratives need to come in, in the woman’s voice. Representation is not enough. Women need to feel belonged in the world they inhabit- which includes driving and riding bikes. Avenger had done this many years ago. It is not about feeling or being represented ‘like a man’ at all. It needs to be that story of a woman, told in her voice, her gaze, and her personal politics,” said Baijal. 

Mitali said that women are sensitive to how a brand treats them and they will remember and make choices in favour of brands that are inclusive and diverse.

Suggesting how consumers need a fluid approach today, Mitali added, “Toxic masculinity is not sexy. Women are aware, educated and not victims of the old tropes in advertising anymore. If a car maker doesn’t have a woman in their boardroom, if their agency partners don’t have a woman in their team, then both are going to lose out on a huge consumer base in future. It’s 2023, and about time we put the brakes on gender-based advertising. The consumer is fluid and hybrid today. It’s time to catch up with them.”

Mintel’s future-looking research study suggests that automakers can make proactive changes like including more women in marketing campaigns, providing comprehensive breakdowns of vehicle prices, and approaching female car buyers as individuals, not just by their gender. Automakers have the ability to fix their fractured relationship with female consumers.