Tom Healy thought he knew all there was to know about cars. As a partner and the director of media and advertising services for the prestigious J.D. Power and Associates in Agoura Hills, Calif., Mr. Healy spends his days sifting through the hundreds of surveys on auto quality and buyer satisfaction that have made that company a major force in car marketing. Then the gender issue came along and bit him.
Nancy Healy, Tom's wife, was looking for a car last summer, and Nancy is nothing if not thorough. She spent several days ranging out among the auto dealers near their suburban Southern California home, gathering research on the models she was interested in and comparing prices. Because her husband follows cars so carefully, one Sunday she invited him along to visit some showrooms once she was ready to deal.
"We went to one dealership that she had been to before, although not this particular salesman," Mr. Healy recalls. "Two days later he sent the thank you note to me. When I got that letter I could see the disappointment and anger in her face."
To the millions of happy husbands and auto salesmen who receive and dispatch such letters every year, the always-send-the-letter-to-the-guy policy of America's auto dealerships seems like a relatively minor gaffe. But don't tell that to the millions of women insulted every year by this male end run. To them the policy speaks volumes about the petty insensitivities and outright sexism that continue to pervade American car buying.
"The Detroit car manufacturers desperately need psychotherapy, emotionally and sexually, vis-a-vis their attitudes toward women," says Lois Geraci-Ernst, chief executive of New York's Advertising to Women and a prominent specialist on reaching women.
If anything, women are a more important target audience for auto manufacturers than men. American women now buy an estimated 50 percent of all cars sold in the U.S., making them a purchasing demographic worth some $65 billion a year. Projections call for women to purchase 60 percent of new cars by the year 2000, and they already contribute to purchasing decisions for 80 percent of cars. And we're not just talking here of the family wagon or a comfy commuter car. Women purchasers account for 25 percent of light truck sales -- minivans, sport utilities and pickups -- and increasingly, there is no difference between the cars bought by women and men.
Of course, it's hard to get a rise out of anyone these days by complaining about the dumbness of auto dealers. But surveys show that men and women react differently. Men are used to being beat up at dealerships and sublimate it. They don't want to concede that they've lost the upper hand. Women are never going to get used to it. For them the habitual rudeness of this environment is a turnoff that drives them away from buying cars.
It's not simply that Detroit doesn't care. In the mid-1980s the Big Three began designing cars and ads specifically targeted to women, avoiding such obvious errors as always showing the man driving the car in ads and promotional literature. But as with everything Detroit does, the bureaucracy can't be easily wrestled to the ground, and the message rarely trickled down to the locals. Women still feel unwelcome and discriminated against in dealerships, and that fact has become a major drag on auto marketing, even as female purchasing power has swelled.
Sometimes Detroit's suicidal instincts just can't be explained. The male-dominated industry and its dealers have fanned the fires of resentment by continuing to air balloons-and-bimbos ads that depict women in sexually suggestive poses and roles -- exactly the image it shouldn't want to project to its largest single demographic. The industry's most recent tactic, Japan-bashing, also bodes poorly. Surveys show that women in particular have a high opinion of Japanese products and simply ignore economic jingoism.
Virtually every woman who's ever bought a car has her own nightmare to relate. What's surprising here, however, is how widely acknowledged the problem has become, with only a few dealerships actively promoting change.
"It happened to me," says Catherine Schafer, marketing director for Ertley Motor World, a huge, multi-brand dealership in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. After a car salesman once called her "honey," Ms. Schafer says she "immediately walked out of the place." She now holds weekly focus groups at Motor World, taking suggestions from her male and female customers.
Many dealers are changing. Wilkes-Barre's Ertley Motor World is one of an increasing number of progressive dealerships that are softening their edges and removing the grease from their floors. Owner Ron Ertley took four years to design and construct the multi-showroom mall situated on three acres of land. Customers can choose a car from nine manufacturers.