When the pop song "Stacy's Mom" was used in a 2005 commercial, the ironic star of the ad -- the one who's "got it goin' on" -- was a frumpy suburban type, in a baggy cardigan and mom jeans, who enthralls preteen boys with her minivan stocked with chilled Dr Pepper.
The song reappeared last fall, this time with the female protagonist, played by French model Magali Amadei, dressed for the office in slacks and a blazer, dropping "Stacy" off at school on the way to work. The dorky dads at the scene are captivated, not by the mom so much as her Cadillac SRX, and its power rear liftgate.
The song is the same, and the setup similar. But the newer ad represented a first for Cadillac's mainstream advertising: a woman clearly depicted as a professional, in the driver's seat of a luxury vehicle.
Even in the 2010s, says Sherrie Weitzman, the SRX's advertising manager, that's not a common image. Cadillac's ads going back to the 1960s, Ms. Weitzman says, are rich with portrayals of women as "an accessory to the vehicle," seated in the passenger seat alongside a successful male, or presented as eye candy. At other brands, car ads aimed at women typically cast them solely as family chauffeurs rather than working moms or professionals.
Ms. Weitzman says her marketing mission is to more accurately portray today's empowered woman, to appeal to a demographic "that is clearly rising in purchasing power."
There's an opportunity there. According to IHS, as of the end of 2013, 39% of U.S. car registrations were in a woman's name. And women are estimated to influence up to 85% of all car purchases, according to a survey by the University of California, Davis.
$300 billion a year
A December 2012 study conducted by Pulse Opinion Research on behalf of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers showed that women spend $300 billion a year on new and used vehicles and accessories. For the first time, they also outnumber men in holding driver's licenses: According to a 2012 University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study by Michael Sivak, females hold 50.4% of driver's licenses, compared with 49.6% by men.
"Women are the fastest growing consumer group," said Marc Bland, VP-diversity and inclusion for IHS Automotive. Automakers "can't help but make them a focus of marketing efforts," he said.
Many are doing that. Buick, for instance, partnered with the Food Network and displays cars at food and wine festivals that skew female. Last year, Ford forged a partnership with Rent the Runway, a dress-rental business, with a sweepstakes contest to promote the Ford Fusion. Others are active on TV programs and channels that have largely female audiences, through product integrations and placements.
Yet a study by Greenfield Online for Arnold's Women's Insight Team shows that three quarters of women feel misunderstood by carmakers. Jody DeVere, CEO of AskPatty.com, a Web site that provides automotive advice for women, said that while some automakers are "making wonderful progress" in reaching women, "others are still in the dark ages," overlooking segments such as baby boomer women, a group she says has the strongest purchasing power but is nonetheless underrepresented in advertising.
Linda Landers, CEO of Girlpower Marketing in Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., points to examples such as Chevy's "I Love the Rain" ad for its Traverse crossover, where the woman is shown preparing to drive a gaggle of kids to an activity on a rainy day. There's no reference to her having any other role, or to specific attributes in the car that might appeal to her, such as interesting technology, she said.
'Mad Men' era
It doesn't help, Ms. DeVere says, that men are the ones making most of the creative decisions. According to a study by Lifetime TV and the Insight Group, 90% of creative directors at the top 100 advertising agencies are men. Many of them work on automotive accounts, Ms. DeVere said, ensuring that marketing is carried out the way it was in the "Mad Men" era: through a male lens.
"The automotive industry is an old boys' club in many respects," said Melody Lee, director of brand and reputation strategy for Cad-illac.
Ms. Weitzman said she and Ms. Lee are in a minority among auto industry creative teams. She says, for example, that she was the only female on set for the "Stacy's Mom" commercial, other than the talent, and she made sure to weigh in on the model's selection and every aspect of her wardrobe, insisting, for example, that she wear pants instead of a skirt.
Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference, an effort to get more women involved in the creative side of marketing, and owner and creative director of Maternal Instinct, said that, while automakers' outreach to female consumers has often meant typecasting women as soccer moms, that's starting to change, with more nuanced messaging that appeals to women in different ways.
Chevy spokeswoman Cristianna Vazquez noted that the "I Love the Rain" ad is now three years old. "I think our current ads are going in a much different direction," she said, pointing to a newer Chevy ad called "Her Horse" that showcases a woman driving a Silverado pickup and defying stereotypes as a rodeo contestant.
George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., says that beyond the portrayals of women in ads, carmakers are starting to take note of what women value in a car.
A 2013 survey of 50,000 new-car buyers put fuel economy at the top of women's lists of most desired attributes. It's also an "emotional thing about how negative they are about minivans" compared with SUVs, he said.
The soccer mom imagery "isn't effective anymore" and doesn't reflect "what we are as a brand," said Dave Mazur, VP-market intelligence and brand and regional revenue optimization for Nissan North America Inc.
Nissan's fantasy-style "Commute" spot for the 2014 Rogue crossover portrays a woman driving deftly through city traffic -- with her male carpool mates in tow -- to get to the office on time.
Danielle Austen, managing partner and CEO of Team Ignition, Nissan's ad agency focused on multicultural work, said having a female driver conveyed empowerment and confidence and noted that the ad stressed the Rogue's style and driving dynamics, rather than space for children. The driver, she noted, is Hispanic; the goal is to cast people in the ads who "really represent America."
Mr. Mazur said that Ms. Austen's presence, as a manager on the creative side, helps to ensure the female perspective is always considered. "She is in there making decisions and running things," he said.
Where marketers sometimes get caught in a rut is when they make stereotypical choices in regard to how the characters act, says Steve Chavez, chief creative officer of Leo Burnett, Detroit.
The idea for "Groceries," an ad Leo Burnett created for the Buick Regal GS, was to do the opposite. The ad portrays a woman enjoying a spirited spin in her husband's high-performance Regal on the way home from the market. Her secret's out when he's unpacking the groceries and a shaken soda can sprays him in the face.
She admits using his car but makes no apologies. "It was not sheepish, guilty or ashamed, all the things that would have been more expected," Mr. Chavez said.
Ads such as Nissan's and Buick's bank on the idea that women will respond to marketing that highlights the performance characteristics of the vehicle, says AutoPacific's Mr. Peterson. "It's showing that the female buyer is very practical but can be a very active driver who wants a fun-to-drive vehicle."
--Julie Halper is a reporter for Automotive News