Targeting Moms: Minivan Commercials




In my video, I want to explore mom-targeted car commercials. The women in these ads are largely white, middle-aged, and eager to show off their empowerment through sexuality and consumption. They are stylish women who have it all while still maintaining a high level of sexual appetite and appeal. Advertisers are targeting women who are in their late 30s and 40s with high cultural capital, have kids, want to be cool and attractive, and are looking for a car that will meet these needs.


The ads I chose were created after the Creative Revolution, so there is an underlying self-awareness in each of them. The ads demonstrate “lifestyle branding” that tells viewers they can construct their identities through consumption. It speaks to a time when “consumers began to embrace consumption as an activity through which identity could be constructed” (Carducci). The identities created in these ads interpolate a woman who is seemingly empowered by breakthroughs gained from the sexual revolution to make her own choices when buying an automobile.


The ad called “Minivan Muscle” shows a woman walking into a car showroom with her husband. She is immediately interested in the minivan because there are two flexing body-builders inside it. The woman becomes overwhelmed by sexual desire and is oblivious to her husband’s efforts to distract her. She then has to be physically led away to look at other cars.


In the second commercial, one of two Cadillac commercials that I will examine, the song “Stacy’s Mom” plays while a mom picks up her daughter from school. As she so easily completes this task, the dads around her are literally paralyzed by her sexuality. The command with which she possesses her sexuality is attributed to the empowerment her car enables her to have. The Freudian lyrics of “Stacy’s Mom” implies that desire is held by the mom and not a younger, more traditionally sexualized female.


The third commercial, also a Cadillac commercial, tells its story through narration by Sofia Vergara. She beings by saying that researchers have found that cup holders are the number one reason women pick a car. She then explains that the Cadillac has a black leather trim and navigation system, something a ‘different kind of woman’ would want in a car. She is implying that a woman like her looks for these things – not cup holders- in a car. The dark colors, yellow street lights, speed of the car, and club music signify nightlife, youthfulness, and excitement. The use of Sofia Vergara and focus on her red lips signify desire.


In the first two ads, the actual features of the product are ignored or left to the end of the ad. There is very little that actually explains the utility of the product – a remnant of the Creative Revolution. Rather than being informative, they are largely transformative, showing examples of a lifestyle. The ads are vignettes of women’s lives who even when they are shopping for cars or picking up their kids can be turned on at any moment and are objects of sexual desire. By putting these characters at the forefront of the ad rather than the features of the car itself, it interpolates a woman who is always looking to be attractive, whose most important value is sex. The selling line of the second ad is “Beautifully practical and practically beautiful” which refers to both the mom and the car, saying that both practicality and beauty are equally important. This seems like a fair idea, but the discourse that a product can enhance a woman’s beauty is problematic because a true empowering idea of beauty has nothing to do with material possessions.


The third ad emphasized the actual features of the car more than the first two. Using a semiotic approach, this ad contains signifiers of sexuality, adventure, and difference. As Goldman and Papson explain, the use of Sofia Vergara has the sign value of a ‘hot’ celebrity whose connotations are then imparted on the ad and therefore the brand and the product. Through her celebrity image, she signifies exoticism and sex. This is coupled with the fact that she talks of the practical value of a cup holder with disdain. A sexy, modern woman like Sofia is disgusted with women who are practical. This value of sex appeal over utility can also be seen in the first ad. The body builders represent sexual prowess but their muscles are primarily used for show – it is a labor of performance.


The ideological tactics of the ads are very clear because they focus so little on the utility of the cars. I will use Goldman and Papson’s four points to discuss this. The ads socially and culturally construct our world by creating stories that closely resemble real life. These ads show that if you buy these products, they can transform you into the characters in the ads. As Messner and Montez de Oca explained, “…lifestyle branding goes beyond the reiteration of a name to actually creating desirable and believable worlds in which consumers are beckoned to place themselves.” It disguises and suppresses inequalities, injustices, and contradictions by giving viewers a highly constructed brand identity to consume. A humorous ad by Cadillac might make viewers forget the fact that Cadillacs are actually very expensive cars that most people cannot afford. These ads promote a normative vision of our world and relationships by putting heterosexual relations at the forefront (rather than other sexualities) and using a Columbian actress who fits all the traditional American beauty standards. They also reflect the logic of capital by emphasizing consumption. If products express identity, then a nuanced and changing identity will require constant consumption and the logic of capital is continually reproduced.

These ads should be exposed because they frame sexuality as the most important part of a woman’s identity. The women in these ads do not seem to care about the car itself, but rather how the car can enhance their sexual attractiveness. Since a car is such a big investment, it should be a thoughtful decision. The utility of a car is important if you are putting your kids in it. The woman in the first ad becomes fixated by the body builders and cannot even respond to her husband when he talks to her. She becomes irrational at the sight of these men. The women are shallow and care more about what the car can do for their outward identities rather than the features of the car itself. The second two ads are more problematic because they are framed in a way that seems empowering to women. In Goldman, Heath, and Smith’s article they say, “to signify feminism…advertisers assemble signs which connote independence…individual freedom, and self-control.” The Cadillac ads demonstrate this perfectly because it is implied that the women chose these cars on their own, exercising their individuality. Advertisers also “present feminism as a style – a semiotic abstraction – a set of visual sign values that say who you are” (Goldman, Heath, and Smith). So if you are a strong independent mom, you can buy a cool car to show that you are both a caring mom and a sexy woman. The ads use sexual liberation values from the sexual revolution to frame their ads as supporting feminism. As Goldman, Heath, and Smith explained, “meanings of choice and individual freedom become wed to images of sexuality in which women apparently choose to be seen as sexual objects because it suits their liberated interests.” Would an intelligent, independent mom become immobile at the sight of men? Would she care more about impressing men with her car rather than with her personality? Would she want a cool, sexy Cadillac and judge moms who don’t?


A web video would expose these contradictory ideologies by using comedy. It would be a short sketch of a lame looking mom who is trying to get hot dads by dressing in overly skanky clothes. She would go into a dealership and choose the most attractive salesman. She would then ask for the coolest, most stylish car, ignoring his questions about features and price range. Then the narrator (a sexy female voice) would say, “look for a car that adds to your sex appeal, not your reason.” This would be culture jamming because it uses all the same signifiers as a regular car commercial. It even uses the same channels of distribution. It would be presented alongside other commercials on the web, but with a completely different message. Culture jamming works to “achieve transparency, that is, to mitigate the asymmetrical effects of power and other distortions in the communications apparatus” by showing subversive and political ideas in a subtle way (Carducci). The purpose would be to make viewers think about the representations of women in ads. Are they fair? What type of gender stereotypes are used? How do they affect women? How do they affect women of color? Do these women seem irrational and illogical? Is that how women see themselves? Is that how women want to be seen? How do men react to them?




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