Why is toxic masculinity such a huge part of car culture?

Toxic male in black sports car with leather and smoke advertisement
© AS Inc. / Shutterstock

A look back at vintage car advertisements shows a troubling history of machismo messaging and sexist marketing toward both genders.

There is nothing like a trip down a memory lane of vintage advertisements to make one realize how far we've come (and how far we have to go) when it comes to gender equality.

Case in point: car advertisements.

Let's take a look at a few vintage car advertisements to get an idea of how automakers market to men (even though today new cars are bought by women more than 60% of the time, according to Forbes).

In the early 1900's, the ads started off innocently enough. They were sensible and facts-driven, with the main message often as simple as, "Hey, it's better than a horse!"

But, as Kea Wilson so astutely and wittily assesses in her recent StreetsBlog article: "For nearly as long as there have been automobiles, automakers have considered men their primary market — even as the wins of the feminism movement put more and more women in charge of their own checkbooks."

Once the public was convinced that cars were a better investment than horses, the marketing became much more gendered. Women were now factored into the equation, but mostly as housewives who needed a car to get their housework and errands done more efficiently. Men, on the other hand, were told to view the car as a possession, a key to adventure, and the capitalist secret to a happy marriage.

1955 ad of a family using their Studebaker carStudebaker/Public Domain

In the mid-century, Wilson credits NASCAR with putting the focus on the spirited individual, rather than the boring ole' family: "With the rising popularity of NASCAR in the 1950s, the tone of car ads took a hard left turn away from the dependable family sedan and towards athletic performance and sleek individualism."

black and white vintage subaru car advertisement with sexist messaging Subaru/Public Domain

"She costs so little to keep happy." Yuck. But wait, it gets worse!

1969 car advertisement for Ford CortinaFord/Public Domain

Beginning in the 1960s, we now enter the dark ages, commonly known today as "toxic masculinity." Modern advertising began dredging up all kinds of stereotypes and clichés that were, at best, simply dumb, and at worst, incredibly offensive.

Wilson writes that "the rhetoric these ads use isn’t just designed to target men. It’s using the worst aspects of toxic masculinity’s prevalence our culture to manipulate men, as well as people of any gender who buy into toxic masculine culture — and those attitudes spill out of the car-buying realm and into driving culture itself."

1969 Dodge Charger color advertisement depicts car in love triangle Dodge/Public Domain

The man in this advertisement is apparently having an affair with his...car?

What exactly is toxic masculinity?

This term is bound to get many people riled up, but it is not a blanket attack on all men. Rather, it looks at the way society both encourages and punishes men for not adhering to a very strict, very gendered set of expectations. Toxic masculinity hurts everyone involved: from children of all genders to adults to the natural environment (yes, nature itself, read on!)

Streetsblog's Wilson gives this excellent definition as it pertains to car advertising:

Another classic example of toxic masculinity: defining a man’s worth by his ability to utterly dominate nature, regardless of how destructive it is to the ecosystem. See: this truly insane 1966 ad, for the man who just wants to run over an endangered species, scrape it off of his grill, and…eat it.

Ford Fairlane how to cook a tiger car advertisement Ford/Public Domain

When you think about dangerous and destructive car behavior, one thinks of speeding, cutting off, failure to use turn signals, and tailgating — basically all high-risk activities that are still glorified in car advertisements today. With pedestrian and cyclist fatalities increasing by a whopping 53% in just the last ten years, it's clear a cultural shift is needed. True, advertisements aren't actually driving the cars, humans are, but marketing messages reflect both our current and aspirational car culture — most of which is terribly unhealthy.

Have we come a long way since the 1960s sexist ads? Yes and no. They may not be as blatantly sexist/racist/classist/ableist as they used to be, but they are still out there, thriving in their un-wokeness. Just check out this 2019 bicycle safety ad from none other than Germany's transport ministry. Even bike helmets aren't immune from these dumb displays of outdated attitudes.

Automakers and advertising agencies, wise up. Do better. Treat all drivers with respect and courtesy. Stop perpetuating harmful and untrue gender stereotypes. Although this kind of macho marketing may seem trivial in comparison, if we want truly want safer streets for everyone, this is yet another piece to the puzzle.

Although, when you've got metal tanks like these continuing to be built, bought, and celebrated, it will be an uphill battle for all of us out there in streets.

Why is toxic masculinity such a huge part of car culture?
A look back at vintage car advertisements shows a troubling history of machismo messaging and sexist marketing toward both genders.

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