Chevrolet: poster child for sexism?

by John Cavanaugh

What a gorgeous bit of nostalgia from Chevrolet! Or whatever this is trying to be. Especially in tough economic times like these, I like to think about the possible target audiences. Even for a poster, which is not technically advertising. And since it begs the question, here are some possible responses:

  1. Hell yes! Those were the days. Women really knew their place back then. Nowadays I can hardly get the nurses to bring my meds on time. Because they just don’t understand that when I call them “doll” or “honey” it’s a term of endearment.
  2. Yes. But being a woman, I’m glad that there are things made out of plastic that are designed to do that now. I have better things to do. Like spend the money I got when Henry passed away.
  3. Yes. That’s a good one. And here’s another one. Remember when Polio was killing all those people? And separate water fountains for minorities. Oh, yeah. Good times, right?
  4. No. Because I was born after 1940. By the way, 1959 called. It wants its dignity back.
  5. No. But as a woman, I’d like to thank Chevy for making the choice for my next vehicle easier. Not having to consider Chevrolet should knock five minutes or so from my process.
  6. No. But more than that – could you explain to me exactly what you’re promoting here? Nostalgic misogyny? Retro fashion? Rolling back creature comforts in automobiles? I’m confused.

Sure. It’s just a poster. And honestly, I don’t believe there is any grand scheme to turn back the clock on women’s rights going on here. But this is not some internal company prank. You can actually buy the poster. From Chevrolet. And it appeals to a sentiment that will undoubtedly ruffle some feathers.

There is a promotional point to be made here. And certainly an artistic point. And I have nothing against nostalgia for its own sake. But, really. There were other choices for header on this poster. And someone chose this one.

So my question is this: Is making a few bucks and connecting in a “wink, wink, nudge, nudge” way with some casual nostalgic sexism worth angering a large, important and growing demographic for Chevy?


John Cavanaugh has been in advertising and marketing for over twenty years. Perhaps that’s long enough to look at it with a critical eye and apply what he’s learned to a broader business perspective. At least that’s what he tries to do at The Tap, Tap, Tap, his personal blog.

For John, writing is just an excuse to communicate. So sometimes it’s serious. Sometimes it’s frivolous. And most of the time it’s both. But it’s a constant invitation – to chat, commiserate, squabble or provoke. And it’s always intended as a shared opportunity to learn.

In addition to writing about the intersection of marketing and business, John also writes about autism advocacy, things that make him laugh and he even gives birth to the occasional poem. But we’re pretty sure Yeats doesn’t feel threatened.

John is currently providing freelance marketing and communication services to businesses, agencies and non-profits in and around Charlotte, North Carolina.

24 replies »

  1. John

    Having worked for GM enough to have toured the very private Cadillac museum and for a bit with Ford, I can tell you it is something simpler than that. These guys simply love cars and believe the 50’s were the absolute pinnacle of automotive design. (Although this example may be early sixties.) I can’t tell you how often both the client and the agency guys (many of whom are still male boomers, by the way) pitched ideas that compared 1950’s cars to beautiful women. It is axiomatic in Detroit that cars are all about the connection between owning a car and adolescent sexual fantasies.

    • Sam: I actually agree with them on the golden age of design thing (what I wouldn’t give for a ’57 T-bird), but when you let backwardism become the face of your brand you deserve what happens to you. Seriously, what would you do if you were the CMO and you realized that this poster was in the marketplace? You know, after your head exploded, I mean.

  2. You’re right of course. I actually fixated on the poster and not the headline. The headline is absolutely foul, and particularly obnoxious because it is so casual. Women equal cup holders. Wow. But I can tell you, I could find 200 senior execs at the big 3 and their agencies who could have written that line. This is not an issue of something slipping by. This is how they think.

  3. Call me crazy, but I dig this poster. And I see your point, but it’s not like it says, “Remember when your cup holder had your dinner and slippers ready when you got home?”. Someone of an age to wear a poodle skirt was not yet of an age to be downtrodden by the masses of superior white male workers, even then. And the picture is of one of those decidedly yonic rear end designs that were so prevalent back then (and sometimes still are). So, if anything, I think the photo dictates the target audience, and caption goes along with that pretty well.

    I guess if I had even the slightest inclination to be a part of the large, important, and growing demographic for Chevy (What demographic is this? Women who wouldn’t deign to wear saddle shoes or their boyfriend’s letter jacket in their adolescence?), I might feel different. But I like my cars to run well and reliably. And that hasn’t been my experience with Chevrolet. If my car is efficient and runs well, I’m perfectly happy to have Jason, my pool boy, hold my cup for me. I don’t need a Chevrolet for that.

  4. Oh yeah, the pinnacle of automotive design. Nothing says pinnacle like biasply tires, drum brakes on all four corners, point ignition systems and finicky carburetors. There’s a good reason that men from back then could work on cars: they had to be able to if they wanted to keep the damned thing running.

    Now if we’re just talking about exterior design then there’s an argument, but the beauty wasn’t happening in Detroit. A Mercedes Benz 300 SL, that’s a work of art. So is an old Porsche Speedster or the work Pininfarina was doing for Ferrari. Detroit was producing iconic designs, but it wasn’t art. And most of the cars coming out of Detroit drove like shit in anything but a straight line. (I am, of course, saying this as a proud Detroiter.)

    As for the header, sure, like most of the time, car marketing like this is directed at the inner, fourteen-year-old boy. It will be hung on the garage walls of grown men, but it’s not like there’s a bumper sticker on the car that says, “Well behaved women rarely make history, but they always make dinner.”

    And after all, this is GM we’re talking about. How many times has the company had to be bailed out after being driven into the ground? I can think of three times off the top of my head.

    • I am hereby rechristening you “Alex Detroit.” Sounds good, conveys an attitude.

      Or maybe Alexei Detroit. Get some commie bastard in there to confusle the natives….

  5. Call me crazy…….but I think this was trying to play of the simplicity of nostalgia about those times, to include dating. The fact was these cars didn’t have cup holders or any other “gizmos”. If you didn’t want to spill your drink the person in the passanger seat had to hold it. If you had a girl in a poodle skirt in that seat, you were doin’ all right. If you were a girl on a date, you were also doing good.

    That’s the feeling they were trying to get at. Nostalgia ain’t about facts, it’s about feelings.

    This poster doesn’t offend me.

  6. I’ll concede that each of you makes an excellent point. And I know there are plenty of folks who will agree with you. However, none of these points speaks to mine. Whether or not you think this is sexist or not or intentional or not, it was unnecessary. The same ends could have been achieved without having to worry about either of these points (sexist or intentional) with judicious copy editing. And why subject your company to even the possibility of backlash when it’s just not necessary? As a pure business decision, it was ill advised. As a marketing decision, it was unnecessary. A few minutes with Google searches on this topic will show that there are plenty of unnecessarily ticked off people out there.

  7. Confuse? Why Detroit is, i’m fairly certain, the only city in America with a major highway named after a Communist.

    No, John, i see your point. I’m not personally offended, but like i said, this is GM. The company knows bad business decisions better than anything else it knows.

  8. John

    Having been vice chair of a big agency, a CMO and interim CMO a few times, and a marketing consultant for thirty years, I agree with you that it was an unnecessary risk. The picture would have made the point without the caption. (Although, that might not be a good idea either. One of the quandaries we always had in Detroit was that showing the old cars did not help sell the new cars–it simply pointed out how bland the new cars have become.)

    But as often happens, your insight that it was sexist and might offend spawned a side discussion as interesting as the original discussion. That question was: Is this ad sexist? Christy and Bob said essentially, “No it’s not sexist, because I was not offended by it.”

    I find it fascinating that people continually confuse racism/sexism and offensiveness. “She’s a smart Jew” is absolutely racist, as is “You blacks are great dancers,” although neither is likely offensive to the individual in question. By definition, any time individuals are credited with specific behavioral attributes based on their genetic background, it’s an -ism, racism, sexism, etc. Equating women to objects is absolutely sexist. Now, whether or not it’s offensive is a different matter.

    It may seem like I am debating how many angels can dance on the head of a pin here, but I don’t think so. I think we need objective, not subjective, standards of bigotry.

  9. By the way, South Carolians explain their insistence on flying the Confederate flag with a nostalgia-like argument, just a pleasant reminder of the good old days.

  10. It is definitely sexist (and seriously why are we targeting people in their 70s and 80s, the only ones actually old enough to remember?).

    Here are some more accurate lines for the poster:

    “No airbags, seatbelts, adjustable seats, or air-conditioning. But with a kit you can make it bounce.”
    “Let me tell you about my first time with your grandma”
    “Giving middle-aged men obsessive hobbies since 1911.”
    “The only reason we’re nice to grandpa.”
    “If you’re stuck in bumper to bumper traffic, at least look at something interesting.”
    “He can spend 6 hours detailing the dash, but can’t clean the kitchen counters.”
    “OMG, it’s going to eat me, the giant insect is going to eat me!”
    “Mommy, why is the car mad at me?”
    “You should have bought a Mustang.”

  11. Oh, I forgot one:

    “If you’re going to take out 13 people at a farmer’s market, do it with style.”

  12. By definition, any time individuals are credited with specific behavioral attributes based on their genetic background, it’s an -ism, racism, sexism, etc. Equating women to objects is absolutely sexist. Now, whether or not it’s offensive is a different matter.

    Exactly. But you know, although we think of a cup holder as a “thing,” there’s no reason it can’t be a job description as well. Passenger as cup holder, no big deal. That doesn’t trigger “woman as object” for me, although it might for others. Now, the presumption that the person driving the car is a man, and that therefore the cup holder must be a woman… that’s the sexist bit.

    • So, Ann, you see no reason to assume that the driver, and the target of that ad, was a male? And that the “cup holder” was a woman? Really? REALLY?

      Either you know something about the wearers of poodle skirts in the ’50s that the rest of us don’t know or we have to conclude that you’re having a bit of sport with Sam and the rest of us.

  13. As I have written before, I think we are all sexist (and racist and every other -ist,) and it’s simply a matter of how hard each of us works to not be. So yes, Ann, I am to some degree a sexist.

    But the presumption that the driver is a male is not evidence of my sexism (or any of the others who read it as such.) Tagline says passenger is wearing a “poodle skirt.” Clearly the writer intended it to be read as male driving. And I also think it’s a reasonable inference that the writer intended “cup holder” to be used in the standard sense of the word, i.e., an object.

    Perhaps my inference is evidence I am a logicist.

    And, sexist or no, I don’t find sly digs appropriate to reasonable discussion, so I will remove myself from this forum.

  14. Sam #1: the presumption of the WRITERS OF THE AD. Good heavens. I was agreeing with you and expanding on your point. Forgive me.

    And Sam #2: first, please read what I actually wrote. I said “cup holder” didn’t resonate with me as “woman as object;” rather, that “cup holder” as a job description could refer to a human being. Who would not be an object. But a human being. Holding a cup. Nowhere did I even remotely imply that the passenger wasn’t a woman.

    And having said that, I hope it’s obvious that yes, I’m well aware that they’re marketing to males. Which brings me back to Sam #1: they’re marketing to males on the presumption that most of those who appreciate vintage cars are male; that men are the drivers; that men are therefore also the buyers. THEIR presumption, and the basic, underlying sexism of this ad. Not YOURS. Unless, of course, you know something about the poodle skirt demographic that Sam #2 doesn’t…

    Whew. Did everyone get their period at the same time?

    • Ann: Okay, if that was what you meant, then I missed it. I know better than to try and oversimplify when it comes to genderisms and racisms of any stripe, but this ad struck me as being pretty uncomplicated. The underlying historical and power dynamics around it are complex enough, but the ad itself seems very straightforward. And clearly sexist. And to the point of John’s original post, I cannot fathom why Chevy did it. I have no objection to taking chances and none to being controversial, but you take big risk for big payoff. Here they’re taking a big risk for no payoff whatsoever. It’s simply a stupid business decision.

      And yes, if there are any marketing folks from Chevy reading this who are associated with this ad, I just called you stupid.

      But I didn’t see anything here that seemed nasty to me. We may have missed each other, which happens. But certainly no bad faith, right?

  15. You know, reading my first comment again, I’m a bit disgusted. I quoted someone and then said “exactly,” which in my crazy world means “right” or “I agree with you” or “sing it, sister.”

    Then I addressed a different point, what I thought was the most basic level of sexism in the ad; not so much “woman as object,” although it could certainly read that way, but “woman as powerless passenger and non-consumer.”

    How that rated a nasty, defensive and personal response I have no idea. Have fun, guys. I’ve had enough.

  16. That this poster(and my post) spurred this debate is exactly my point. Once the creators opened the door, its intent, meaning, subtext or target were all opened up to interpretation.

    I worked for a very smart radio station owner just after graduating from college. He told me that it wasn’t the songs you didn’t play that made people change the station. It’s the songs you did play. On one hand, he’s right. You listen until a song comes on that you don’t like, then you change it. But you don’t change it because they’re not playing a particular song you love. It’s programming by fear, which is bad. But it’s also shrewd business. The guy who owned the radio station I worked for was not stupid. Or wealth-challenged.

    In this case, the creators of the poster could have done something that spoke to (what I assume was) their target audience and sold some posters without playing the song that would make a percentage of us “change the station.” As I said before, somewhere along the line the benefits were determined to outweigh the possible backlash. I wonder if they would make that call again?

    • I stand by my “stupid” comment. And my guess is that anybody who would do this once would do it again unless it caused them so much pain (and here, pain = money) that they couldn’t ignore it. I seriously doubt that has happened.

      I submitted the article to a few news aggregators (Reddit, Current, etc.) and there was some comment there. As a rule, those comments had the general signal strength of monkeys watching porn. So while we have sniped at each other here, I do appreciate the fact that it’s been informed sniping, for the most part.