Auto Ads: Why should boys have all the fun?

It’s about time that ad filmmakers, along with the auto industry bigwigs, put their heads together to create tasteful ads for vehicles incorporating more of “the second sex.”

Jul 31, 2020 PRERNA LIDHOO No Comments Like

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Imagine watching an ad for an SUV brand. It starts with the whirring of an engine, the car treading through the bumpy rifts of a picturesque valley in Himachal; captured beautifully through a drone shot. A cool SUV with a sun roof, an immersive audio setup, intuitive temperature control—the features start to get more pronounced. Every other paraphernalia to make the driver look ‘cool and free-spirited’ gradually makes its way into the frame. The SUV accelerates and ends up in the middle of nowhere leaving behind a cloud of dust. On a closer look, a woman gets off from the driver’s seat and delivers the brand’s message talking to the adventure-seeker and the tough roadster in you. Anything amiss here?

Most of us can hardly recollect the last time we watched an ad by a mainstream car manufacturer that had a woman as the lead. This points to a fundamental gap in the industry’s messaging that often tends to exclude a growing chunk of its buyers—women. 

According to industry data, women account for 10 -12% of the passenger vehicle market in India. “In fact, this number can be considered to be much higher because they play a large role in the decision making of buying a car. Along with the higher share of women car buyers, their age profile is getting younger. So, we would be remiss in our role as one of India’s leading auto brands, if we didn’t consider women as a part of our customer base,” says Vivek Srivatsa, Head, Marketing, Tata Motors Passenger Vehicles Business Unit. 

Women are scarce in auto ads due to the age-old stereotype that women prefer looks over performance when it comes to cars and that looks supersede everything else when it comes to their car-buying patterns. In one of the earliest auto ads during the 1990s, only electric cars were pitched to women because they were more silent, slower and delicate, thus appealing to a traditionally feminine sensibility. American car maker Anderson Electric Car Company’s Detroit Model, for example, had an ad marking its products for the “well-bred” wife, helping her “preserve her toilet immaculate, her coiffure intact.” Women were considered too soft to drive a real car. 

American Historian Virginia Schraff writes, “when automakers came up with self-starter devices, which replaced the practice of laboriously cranking engines, they billed the improvement as an act of chivalry for helpless women drivers.” All this and more, led the auto industry to believe that women cannot be their primary clientele. 

However, it is not true that women haven’t been a part of auto ads at all. Throughout modern history, women have largely been a central subject in auto ads, but used for a very different purpose. Women were generally placed as an object of desire (next to the cars) in ads. If at all they were directly spoken to, they were seen as a potential customer for other vanity-inducing products rather than the car itself. In the 60s, for example, Ford tied up with a cosmetics brand for a sweepstakes offering pink Mustangs as prizes with an ad that said, “Wear a Mustang to match your lipstick.” Closer to today, in 2016, Cosmopolitan took it a step further by collaborating with Spanish carmaker SEAT for a purple coloured, limited-edition car with “eyeliner headlights” and jewelled, bi-colour alloy wheels famously known as the “most feminine car” from the brand. 

Things are not very different today. Women are still proudly displayed along with latest car models at motor shows across the globe whereas very few women own the executive powers for their advertising/marketing campaigns. But that’s a debate for another day. 

A 2019 study by Microsoft tracked the vehicle shopping journey of women. “To connect effectively with female auto buyers, advertisers must look past stereotypes, understand shopping nuances, and adapt their marketing strategies accordingly,” it said. 

Chandan Bagwe, founder and director, C Com Digital, a Mumbai-based marketing agency, believes that it is about time that brands start considering women as their ambassadors. “Infact Two wheelers have already done it,” he said. Ad industry, he feels, is not regressive but is stereotypical in nature. “When there is a demand, ads should be made for a niche segment. If there is a women segment clearly demarcated, then a car model can be launched for them. There are family of brands, for example, Maruti Suzuki Swift Zx, Vx, Lx with different features for Women. Swift Wx can be launched, for instance, without hurting the other same family brands. It is called positioning of the brand to “a particular segment,” says Bagwe. 

Bagwe’s research broke many stereotypes that were prevalent in the industry. He says many women reported a more research-based purchase journey and were far less emotional and more pragmatic when it came to buying a car—as opposed to the popular belief that women choose a good-looking car before anything else. “75% of respondents highlight the practical features of the car as a key priority, followed closely by the current price on offer, while 47% of women want greater representation of their gender in car advertising, arguing that advertising which focuses too much on men is a turn-off,” he said. Many women in India feel patronised by car ads, or find them “too masculine”. This is perhaps a good time for advertisers and car marketers to re-look at their brand messaging.  

A few years back, Jaguar’s National Communications Head, Rhidian Taylor, (now with the Volkswagen group) wrote on his official blog that the car industry has been one of the worst offenders. “Think about the car adverts you’ve seen recently. There are so many clichés: mountain roads, a city at night, the moment where a car splashes through a stream (especially if it’s an SUV) … and a man in the driving seat looking pensive and determined. Some car ads don’t feature a driver at all, but their tone and cues are unmistakably masculine,” he wrote. He goes on to say that since women influence 85% of all car buying decisions, even when they aren’t the buyer, they nonetheless have a significant say. “But still these female buyers and influencers are largely ignored by car advertising. Some car ads do show women, but all too often they’re in small (“shrink it and pink it”) cars, on the school run, going shopping or showing how practical the car is for families. And frequently, women appear quietly in the passenger seat while the man takes the wheel,” he wrote.

There is a dire need for auto ads to be more relevant to women. Srivatsa agrees. “Tata Motors has always been known to make more women-friendly cars focusing on safety, security, durability and convenience, which are few of the main factors in making a car buying decision for a woman. While the industry as a whole needs to be more inclusive in terms of their messaging towards women buyers, I wouldn’t necessarily categorize it as regressive/stereotypical,” he said. 

But things are gradually changing with digital advertising gradually taking the centre stage for major car companies. Recent campaigns by Tata Motors featured Canadian dancer, Nora Fatehi,  who has worked in the Indian film industry. It has worked on various women centric campaigns to cater to this untapped market. Actor, Kalki Koechlin, too, was seen in a recent Ford Eco Sport ad as the face of the brand. 

“While we are already doing this actively, it is too early to deep dive in to what the future of our communication will be. Women have been and will remain and integral part of our target audience, however, decisions on future advertising will have to be taken based on upcoming products, their USPs, personality etc,” says Srivatsa. 

A March 2020 survey by Premon Asia, a consumer insights company, delves into what Indian women car buyers look for while making a purchase. It states that they had their say in five keys areas of vehicle ownership—brand image, product performance, sales and delivery process, aftersales service, and cost of ownership. It is commonly believed that exterior colours are among the key drivers of choice for women. This study defies that belief. “Only 16 percent of women stated colour or the availability of a particular colour as the reason for selecting a specific car. On the other hand, aspects such as the vehicle’s brand, its visual appeal, the kind of innovative technology and features that it offers are ranked much higher on a woman’s car-buying wish list,” the study said. “Safety, security, and convenience are key expectations that women buyers have from their cars, and are willing to pay more for such features and services.” 

It adds that women are willing to spend money on safety and infotainment features in their cars, and since India’s women car buyers nearly doubled from 2012 to 2017, it is no more feasible to ignore this growing subset of customers. The way forward, advertisers say, is to think about launching a “Car For Women” now when the demand is increasing. 

In Google India’s Automotive Research Studies, Akanksha Saxena, Senior Analytical Lead, Automotive and Aparna Rao, Industry Analyst, with the search engine, discuss ways in which Indian auto brands can shift gears to reach women car buyers. According to them, one of the ways this can happen is to understand what women auto buyers are looking for, and to engage with them with tailored experiences. 

Google’s research said that 85% of Indian women prioritize car design and style, 61% want spacious cars, and 59% look for durability and safety. “And considering nearly 40% of women auto buyers look for driver assistance features, marketers can help women drivers find their ideal cars by highlighting the helpful features they’re looking for,” it said. 

Experts feel that the industry needs to look beyond stereotypes and anecdotal knowledge. Last year when KIA Motors entered the Indian market, it observed that 40% of its website traffic came from women. If brands choose not to harness this opportunity, then they are deliberately picking the short end of the stick. Brands such as Mahindra & Mahindra and Hyundai are already leading the way with more women in the driver’s seat in their ads and curating more women-centric stories. A lot can also be done if dealerships can become more conducive spaces for female clientele. MG Motor India, for example, is already hiring more women across their networks to create more inclusive customer experiences.

Research also suggests that women drivers are 47% more likely to be seriously injured in crashes, because cars are designed to protect men’s larger bodies. Once the advertising and branding-related issues are fixed, companies can turn their attention to working on a more female body-specific design. But until then, the industry has a long way to go.

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