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Chevy's Ads Evolved With Women's Changing Role in Society

From Breadmakers to Breadwinners, Women and the Ads that Targeted Underwent Shift

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How's this for an ad pitch? "Especially suitable" for wives to "drive the family provider to and from the station or the children to and from school."

That ad for a Chevy sedan ran in Collier's, Ladies Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post and was quite progressive for 1922 -- and it was one of the first automaker attempts to attract women. As the role of women has evolved from breadmakers to breadwinners, Chevy's ads have changed along with them.

Dannielle Hudler -- formerly Colliver -- who became Chevy's first female director of car advertising in 1985, said the brand's marketing attempts from the early 1900s through World War II were to convince women that they could drive cars, which helped to sell more vehicles.

Dannielle Hudler
Dannielle Hudler Credit: Jeffrey Sauger

During the 1950s, ads portrayed a woman as a "good wife," smiling and dressed for church in the passenger seat with three or four children in the back seat. By the 1960s, Hudler said, women dressed in evening gowns surrounded the cars; by the early 1970s, women in bikinis were draped provocatively over the hood. It wasn't until the 1980s, when women headed to the workplace in large numbers, that marketing and advertising to women began in earnest, Hudler said. "Women finally became the customers instead of accessories," she said.

Tony Hopp, former CEO of Campbell-Ewald, said marketing vehicles to female buyers has "been part of Chevy's marketing arsenal" during his 40-plus years at the agency. He recalls a program for the introduction of the S-10 Blazer in 1983, one of the first attempts to market trucks to women. The ads showed the vehicle's versatility, with a woman loading a flat of flowers, for example. And it played on the word "blazer" to indicate that it was a fashion statement. The S-10 ad "was a breakthrough" in capturing the women's market, Hopp said.

Sean Fitzpatrick, a former Campbell-Ewald creative director, said bringing women to the brand was an ideal way to expand the market between 1984 and 1986. Ads running in women's magazines featured the Blazer as an "urban safety vehicle," dodging potholes and surviving harsh winter conditions while emphasizing the secure feeling of sitting up high, he said.

'Welcome to the 1950s'
As a key way to tap into how women think, Fitzpatrick started hiring women in the creative department, which wasn't common in the car and truck area at the time. "Women know what they're doing in a lot of areas where men don't," he said.

But that was sometimes met with resistance at Chevy. He recalls that one of the Chevy ad managers didn't want one of Fitzpatrick's female employees in a meeting merely because she was a woman. "It may have been the '80s, but there should have been a sign in Detroit that said 'Welcome to the 1950s,'" he said.

Then there was the "Like a Rock" campaign, which started in 1991. It was developed during a time when there was a huge migration toward using trucks for personal use, which warranted a shift away from the historic ads that pictured trucks in the mud with stoic men. Bill Ludwig, now Campbell-Ewald's CEO, recalls a Dallas dealer telling him, "I'm having women in heels and short skirts buying pickup trucks, and that 's not pictured in the ads."

In response, marketing efforts focused on self-reliance. One of the things the "Like a Rock' theme did was play to the idea that a woman wants to be "like a rock" to her husband, children and co-workers. The ads featured images of strong women. One was wearing a professional suit; another was pregnant; another was eating pizza in a truck; a musician was hoisting her cello into the back of the vehicle. Those images also helped to convince women that the truck would be dependable, said Kurt Ritter, who was marketing manager of Chevy trucks at the time.

In the famed "An American Revolution" campaign, Chevy joined with Conde Nast for a promotional tie-in in which Chevy was a sponsor of fashion shows in malls across the country. Cars that appealed to women and families, including the Camaro, Malibu, Traverse and Equinox, were on display, Ludwig said.

Family Circle named the Malibu the most family-friendly car, a seal of approval that Chevy leveraged. Chevy hired a fashion photographer to shoot the 2008 Malibu for print ads that ran in women's magazines, highlighting its stylish and elegant lines. "We had the Malibu showing up in places that it wouldn't have appeared, with upscale, elegant magazines with a huge female readership," Ludwig said.

Finding a Heartbeat
A landmark in Chevy's marketing to women was the "Women's Heartbeat" Camaro commercial in 1986, part of "The Heartbeat of America" campaign.

Lawrence Dolph, a creative director at Campbell-Ewald in 1985, recalls the MTV -like "quick-style cuts" that were used to showcase the line. "Our women's spots were shot in a way that was highly innovative for Detroit commercials," he said. They represented a big departure from the chauvinistic, outdated "pink ads" designed for the 1950s woman. Instead, women were shown as self-confident, nurturing their children and "bossing the guys around." He said having women like Colliver in marketing proved to be a huge asset.

Ludwig said that instead of highlighting particular features of the car, the advertising showed a variety of powerful women firmly in control, including a bodybuilder shooting an arrow and another pumping gasoline in a cocktail dress.

Fitzpatrick said women were portrayed in real-life situations, "showing the benefits and ego rewards of Chevy," demonstrating the car's ability to accelerate quickly and maneuver easily through traffic. The spots conveyed the idea of an emancipated woman "who has power over her own life and isn't subject to other people," he said.

Dolph said the 1986 commercial was groundbreaking at the time in the advertising world and was well-received by the 100 million people who saw it. "Camaro sales rose 17.5 percent in a down market, from the second quarter of 1985 to the second quarter of 1986, rising numbers led by purchases by women in a domestic market assaulted by imports," he said.

Ritter recalls a commercial for the Impala in 2001 that showed the power of women. A woman pulls up to a light next to menacing-looking young men. The viewer hears blaring music and assumes it's from the men's radio but learns as the woman pulls away that she's playing the song.

Lew Eads, Chevy's advertising manager for passenger cars from 1987 to 1997, pointed to a commercial portraying a young woman saying goodbye to her parents in a rural setting, hopping into a new Cavalier to head to her first job. It was part of an effort from 1989 to 1991 targeted at women aged 22 to 26 who were purchasing their first cars, he said. Eads said the marque's sponsorship of the Miss America pageant from 1988 to 1993, which had an enormous number of viewers, also provided great exposure.

While today's feminists may scoff, he said, when the pageant was at its peak, "it was a great marketing tool for us to reach out to women."

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