Denise Kingsmill: Sex doesn't sell cars to women

It's time the car industry - and advertisers - realised that women are their biggest customers

by Denise Kingsmill
Last Updated: 21 Nov 2014

The moment of truth arrived when the hood of my beloved Saab stopped halfway down. I had my four-year-old grandson safely strapped in the backseat, who loved to be driven with the roof down whatever the weather. On cold days I would turn up the brilliant heater, designed to cope with serious Swedish winters, wrap a rug around him and drive home. This time, however, it was truly stuck. A friendly father at the nursery school gate helped me push it down but I realised then it was time to put my 25-year-old workhorse out to grass.

It took a few more weeks before I faced the inevitable fact that, Uber not withstanding, I was going to have to buy a new car. I discussed this with friends and family at length. My children thought I should get something sensible with good safety features, low fuel consumption and a hard top. Friends came up with suggestions left, right and centre.

It was astonishing to me that so many had such strong views about cars. The gender differences were as marked as the generational. The consensus fell somewhere between a Prius and a Porsche, and probably reflected their views of me as much as of the cars.

As I researched the options, I checked out the car magazines which, in my local news-agent, were displayed on the top shelf alongside the likes of Hustler and Men Only. All offered a similar macho, laddish approach with much emphasis on acceleration, skid performance and turbos. Many still feature so called ‘glamour models’ draped over bonnets and boots. Not much help to be found there.

I started noticing the car ads, which also seemed to be promoting a stereotyped brand image that hadn’t changed in 30 years, based on a male fantasy of speed and empty plains – all gleaming metal and thrusting torque. Nothing here that appealed. The acclaimed Audi ad, with its slow pan over a stationary vehicle accompanied by the roar of an engine racing and building to an orgasmic climax of glowing, spitting exhausts, left me cold.

Even when trying to appeal to a female audience they get it so dreadfully wrong, as the weird ‘rapping motherhood’ ad for the Fiat 500 that refers to breast pumps and baby poo illustrates so well. Don’t these guys do any research? Don’t they know who buys their products? Are they really all sexually inadequate fantasists or crazy mums?

They should read the recently published study Women in Cars from consultants Frost & Sullivan to get some deeper insights into the automotive segment and the rapidly growing female purchasing power. In the US, more women than men now hold driving licences and the rate of increase in the UK means we too will soon overtake the chaps. We already make more trips and drive more miles. It is estimated that women influence 80% of car buying decisions and yet none of the marketing seems to recognise this. Women are less interested in engine performance and nought to 60 figures and more in style and reliability.

Design, spaciousness and features such as park assist, clear lighting, and integrated systems for mobile, audio and GPS are the things that women appreciate. One feature I saw that I really liked was a sophisticated parking system whereby the driver could leave the car to park itself in a designated space. A press of a smart-phone key and the vehicle returns to its owner. Perfect for the scary hell of the underground car park. Perhaps the manufacturers read the research and ignore it, preferring to stick to the old-fashioned idea that sex sells. Not to women in cars it doesn’t.

When I actually ventured into the showrooms I was generally treated with courtesy and patience, however, it was rapidly apparent that they were more interested in telling me about the finance packages available than about the cars. Everyone wanted to offer me a deal. In the year to August, more than £11bn of credit was advanced to fund car purchases, accounting for more than 74% of sales. With very high levels of unemployment and weak growth throughout the rest of Europe, the manufacturers are looking to the UK with its consumer tolerance of high levels of personal debt. ‘Treasure Island’ is what they sometimes call the UK market. Desperate to sell cars, they are offering cheap finance through banks and finance houses to inflate sales. How sustainable this may be is questionable. Many customers, too, are using windfalls from refunds from the banks after being missold products as deposits.

I eventually made my choice after test driving half a dozen models. It’s a big beast, beautiful and bronze. More Italian elegance than Scandi sturdiness. I haven’t quite fully committed, preferring to lease rather than buy. I doubt I will keep it for as long as I had my faithful Saab, currently languishing in the garage as I haven’t been able to part with it and the memories of journeys we shared. But I am having fun and the four-year-old loves it.

Meet Baroness Kingsmill, a non-executive director of various British, European and US boards, at our Inspiring Women event this Thursday 20th November. Fellow speakers include Thomas Cook boss Harriet Green, Ann Summers CEO Jacqueline Gold, Links of London founder Annoushka Ducas and M&S style director Belinda Earl. Check out the programme and book tickets here at 15% off the full price.

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