Automakers are recognizing women's increasing buying power. I AM WOMAN, HEAR ME ROAR...IN MY CAR GREATER PURCHASING POWER BRINGS ROLE REVERSAL TO AUTO ADS

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In a new Pontiac Bonne-ville commercial, a woman daydreams about a romantic ride with an attractive male, wending along a coastal highway that brings them to an elegant restaurant. She's driving.

It's just one example of how auto marketers are putting women in the driver's seat more than ever in 1995 model year advertising. Long gone are the scenes of women draped over the hoods of cars, a onetime staple of car advertising that played to male fantasies. Nor are women confined to being the chauffeurs for groups of suburban kids.

Consider some other examples:

A spot for the 1995 Pontiac Grand Am from D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, Bloomfield Hills, Mich., depicts a savvy young woman who brings her brother to a dealer's lot. His role is to help her pick out the color of her new car.

An introductory commercial for the Volkswagen Passat from Berlin Cameron Doyle, New York, shows a young male executive assigned to pick up the company's president. The president turns out to be an older woman who commandeers the car for a cross-country joyride.

In a spot from Lowe & Partners/SMS, a woman driving a Mercedes-Benz E420 speeds up to beat an approaching 18-wheeler. "I am engine. Hear me roar," says the voice-over, evoking the 1970s Helen Reddy song, "I Am Woman."

Four of five introductory spots by McCann/SAS, Troy, Mich., for the GMC Jimmy sport-utility vehicle feature women, including one with a suit-clad executive who doesn't have to sacrifice her dignity getting in because of the vehicle's low step-in height.

The most lavishly produced auto commercial for 1995 depicts a woman at a cocktail party who notices a small-scale car weaving around the wavy lines of an abstract painting. The woman suddenly appears inside the artwork, steering the Aurora luxury sedan through a world of bold, colorful curves. Leo Burnett USA, Chicago, created the spot for General Motors Corp.'s Oldsmobile.

"Women react positively to seeing themselves portrayed as competent and knowledgeable consumers," said Lynn Myers, general director-brand management and marketing, GM's Pontiac division.

At the same time, research by Pontiac and DMB&B into the new advertising indicates men accept it. "Men felt the role reversal was kind of intriguing," Ms. Myers said. "Younger men said it was relevant to their experiences, while older men recognized that times have changed."

Increasing economic clout is one factor driving newfound respect for women in auto ads. Women are making or influencing more purchase decisions, even in luxury cars and upscale sport-utility vehicles, the fastest-growing auto segment.

From 1987 to 1994, women rose from being 18.2% of the principal light-duty truck drivers to 24.6%, according to J.D. Power & Associates, an Agoura Hills, Calif.-based market researcher. That helped drive a surge in the popularity of minivans and sport-utility vehicles.

While women make up 45.7% of the principal car drivers (down slightly from 46.2% in 1987), they represent more than 50% of the principal drivers in the basic small, lower middle and small sporty segments, said Tom Healey, Power's advertising and media services director.

Women now comprise 29% of luxury car principal drivers, but many more aspire to those brands. Mr. Healey said that's why a marketer like Jaguar Cars has targeted executive women for its late-model used Jaguar leasing program.

"Women are potentially a very big area of growth in the luxury car segment," said Andy Goldberg, general manager-integrated marketing communications for Mercedes-Benz of North America. "If we want to expand our franchise, we need to address them."

Cadillac earlier this year tested a marketing effort in Minneapolis aimed at women, and is putting a national program into place, said Peter Levin, advertising director for the GM division.

The Cadillac effort will include promotions with women-oriented magazines like Elle, Harper's Bazaar and Town & Country, as well as new advertising from DMB&B that features Cadillac women employees. One spot shows Veronica Issacs, roadside service supervisor, discussing Cadillac's 24-hour roadside assistance benefit.

Another reason for change in the still male-dominated auto industry is that women are making headway in marketing jobs. "We bring a different perspective to a marketing program," said Ms. Myers.

Ford division is featuring women drivers in TV spots created by J. Walter Thompson USA, Detroit, for two small sporty cars: the Probe and Mustang convertible.

Media and promotional tactics are slowly evolving, too.

For example, Mercedes-Benz, traditionally strong in sports programming, is putting more emphasis on prime-time programming. GM's Chevrolet is sponsoring the America3 all-female sailing team that will compete for the America's Cup in 1995, and is planning spring tie-ins to attract women buyers to the new Tahoe, a full-size sport-utility vehicle.

Pontiac has increased its use of magazines that have predominantly women readers.

"We're seeing the industry treat women as bonafide consumers who are interested in what a car is all about, not just the color," Ms. Myers said.

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