21 March 2012

Female and Auto: The Peek-a-Boo Show by Nilakshi Medhi, JWT Planning, Delhi

The story starts with the Honda Brio commercial, which triggered off a series of thoughts... of emotions and gender, of history and truth, of automobile and males... the commercial leaves behind an impression of what an automobile can offer and even substitute. Another case in point is the Maruti Suzuki SX4 commercial, which makes the car almost an innate object of subjective ‘male’ urges. The automobile has been a very narrow and a cliché canvas, on which many male fancies and desires have been painted and even ‘white-washed’.
Flip a few pages in history and some surprises may pop up...
The original Ford Mustang, now coveted as the muscle car from Ford was originally designed as a car to appeal to the women, which men incidentally should also desire. The original slogan for the Mustang was "A sports car that you can buy on a secretary's salary." The commercials portrayed young women in the 20's and 30's leaving a busy office and running home to load up their Mustang for a fun weekend with the girls.

Communication in automobile has gone through many twists and turns, as it reflects the changing cultural norms of the day. The automobile or the passenger car was originally designed as utility vehicles, primarily positioned as ‘horseless carriages’. These vehicles were meant for male use, except for society women called ‘chauffeuses’, who drove for recreation around 1910. Even then the accepted means of transport for the women folk were electric cars, which even Henry Ford bought for his wife, Clara in the same year the iconic Model T was launched, 1908. The gender roles were clearly established, gas powered cars were meant for use by the male section of the society.
It was only in the 1950s and the 60s that a paradigm shift was noticeable, as females were increasingly being heard in the society and the family composition. This can be largely attributed to the significant role that women played in the two World Wars and the suffrage movement. As manufacturers adopt new selling techniques, they began to listen and acknowledge the female element that existed in most purchases. But the household remained the common context around which most manufacturers sought to attract this influential segment. It was not uncommon for a woman to drop her husband off at work, take the children to school, run errands throughout the day, and then return to pick up her children and husband, which was leveraged by most manufacturers. The portrayal of most women in this era was conservative and within the realms of the traditional set-up of a family and a home. While the man earns the bread, the woman can still ‘be free’ to run errands and enjoy life.

The 60s and the 70s can be seen as the rise of the counter culture generation that challenged the status quo of the society. While in the early 1900s, the emphasis was on improving the efficiency and the performance of the vehicle, the 60s and the 70s was the age for satisfying the vanity of the generation. Dagmars, tailfins along with the abundant usage of chrome in automobile was the order of the day. These superficial changes capitalized on the sexual revolution and reinstated a consumerist economy driven by men. Women were relegated to being the docile ‘pussycats’ while the masculine man maintain absolute control behind the wheel. Ironically while the feminists were shouting hoarse about birth control, the female form became an accessory to sell one of the most potent male fantasies, a fiery four wheel dream.

As we roll into the new decade, the two sexes have become more alike in their access to and usage of automobiles. In fact, in the late 1990, 20% of all American households had three or more cars, with increasing number of females entering multiple male domains or the so called “male public place”. With increasing employment level, sprawling suburbs and a choking public transport system, women is seen multi-tasking between home and office, running errands and clocking more miles than the man in the house. Throughout the decades, the automobile has been a gendered object that has seen manufacturers swinging between male advocacy and female dependency.
Since its origin to modern times, the automobile has been a ‘boy’s toy’, succumbing to the male whims and desires. Like the iconic Mustang, which has moved far ahead of being a ‘secretary’s car’ to a throbbing V8 engine power horse, automobile manufacturers are taking the same tried and tested route of seizing the pulsating male heartbeat.
This brings us back to the Honda Brio and Maruti Suzuki SX4 commercials that pampers the male ego and blatantly highlights the rift between the masculine and the feminine subjectivities. A SX4 may proudly proclaim that ‘Men are back” but when did they ever leave this very masculine space?


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  2. Ha ha those commercials are quality.