Are car ads patronising to women?

In their eagerness to bring women on board, are advertisers of high-tech products at risk of doing the opposite by assuming that tech is beyond both their interest and understanding? Car manufacturers are currently in the eye of this particular storm, having been criticised for crossing the line between ads that make their vehicles relevant to women and those that talk down to them.

This is especially true for companies making compact cars popular with female buyers. Women now own 40 per cent of the cars on Britain’s roads – and the figure is rising. This is fuelling the trend for personalisation. And this is where danger lurks for car-makers, which can find themselves treating women as if they don’t know their spark plugs from their sparkly eyeliner. Such a charge is currently being levelled at Citroën’s print ad for its DS3, 60 per cent of whose sales are to women.

The execution, by Acuity, features a DS3 having its roof painted "glam fuchsia pink" by a giant nail-varnish brush with the line: "Nail your look." According to one critic, you might as well suggest that shopping for a DS3 is no different from a trip to Accessorize.


Belinda Parmar, chief executive, Lady Geek

"Citroën’s DS3 ad epitomises everything that’s wrong with the way the car industry speaks to women. While companies such as Sony and Samsung have woken up to the fact that women are important, car manufacturers still behave like nervous boys at a dance doing all they can to avoid talking to girls. It’s partly because they think women aren’t interested in technology, but that’s just not true. The fact is that more women than men bought smartphones last year. What women want from advertising is emotion, reassurance and authenticity. What they get is a lot of high-tech ads that are devoid of empathy."


Philippa Roberts, co-founder, Pretty Little Head

"No advertiser sets out to patronise women. The problem is that, traditionally, masculine categories such as cars, financial services and brown goods have sought competitive advantage by claiming that their offering is superior to that of their rivals. For the car industry in particular, that usually means ‘bigging up’ the product. It explains why, when they try reaching out to women, they come up with cack-handed pink nail-varnish-type solutions. The result is a missed opportunity. And not just in the advertising. Car showrooms remain unreconstructed places where women still get treated as if they’re thick."


Andy Palmer, chief planning officer, Nissan

"Our industry is failing the largest customer segment. At Nissan, we recognise the purchasing power of women and the need not to patronise or alienate them. It’s not about gimmicks, but designing around female needs. We must not mistake this to mean pink or having a hook for the handbag. Female customers are demanding on attributes such as manoeuvrability, interior craftsmanship and user-friendly features. An additional factor is the lack of women in our business. Longer term, we have to entice more women into the automotive industry. And, shorter term, we need to better understand this ‘mega segment’."


Caitlin Ryan, group executive creative director, Karmarama

"The risk of running advertising that patronises women is huge and we have to be very aware of it. The problem is that it can happen so easily and, when you get a brief for a product trying to make itself attractive to women, you quickly end up with patronising images of lipstick, stilettos and nail varnish if you aren’t careful. It’s so important to get this right because women are becoming such powerful consumers whose buying behaviour we’re understanding better. And it’s wrong to suggest women don’t understand technology. In my house, I’m the tech expert."