NEW YORK -- Clotaire Rapaille, a French-born psychiatrist-turned-marketer, has a theory about what women want in cars. In focus groups, Rapaille uses Jungian psychoanalysis to probe consumers until they reveal the unconscious "archetypes" that supposedly reside in their "reptilian" brains, steering them toward certain purchases. It was the soft gruntings of subjects' reptilian brains, Rapaille says, that clued him in to the fact that women are obsessed with cup holders. Cup holders signify coffee, he says, and coffee signifies safety, and safety is what women want most in cars.
"The coffee archetype: You're home, you're safe, mother is preparing breakfast," Rapaille told me when I interviewed him from one of his six homes, in Palm Beach, Fla. Apparently women love cup holders so much, they'll want as many as four in front, and more in back. (Hey, the kids need a place for those juice boxes!) Rapaille presented this cup holder thing as perfectly reasonable when we spoke, but I noticed he spun it differently to Malcolm Gladwell some years back: "It's amazing that intelligent, educated women will look at a car and the first thing they will look at is how many cup holders it has."
Maybe he and Gladwell were talking man to man? Maybe he felt I couldn't handle the truth? Either way, one gets the distinct impression that Rapaille believes women don't really grasp these complicated contraptions known as cars, or, for that matter, their own minds.
This simplistic diagnosis of the female brain turns out to be a theme in the auto industry's historical view of women. Rapaille, who did a lot of work with Chrysler in the '90s, and has also worked with Ford and GM, is admittedly an extreme. He told me women care about car interiors because they're "programmed to create life" inside their wombs -- the sort of thing few savvy carmakers would voice these days. But if blatant sexism is harder to find, the industry still falls short by failing to realize how many of its consumers are women -- a broad swath of America that, as it turns out, isn't a monolith of put-upon, coffee-and-juice-box toting soccer moms. Which is too bad for them, since a new study shows that female drivers now outnumber male drivers for the first time. And those female drivers operate pretty much the opposite of how Rapaille and the rest of the industry have historically viewed them. Rather than being swayed by frivolous details, they are, in fact, serious researchers who tend to be less impulsive in their purchases and less interested in aesthetics and styling -- more rational, in the words of one enlightened Honda executive -- than men.
The idea that women's interest in cars is a lark, more style than substance, has its roots in the earliest automotive advertising. During the first decade of the 1900s, automakers pitched gas cars to men and electric cars to women, on the theory that electric cars -- quieter and slower, too heavy to climb hills, and with shorter range -- were more appropriate for feminine sensibilities. Anderson Electric Car Company's Detroit Model may not have run so well, but as the company told its male consumers, it was ideal for the "well-bred" wife, helping her "preserve her toilet immaculate, her coiffure intact."
This idea that women needed dumbed-down technology persisted even as electric cars fell by the wayside and gasoline cars took off. For instance, Historian Virginia Scharff writes that when automakers came up with self-starter devices, which replaced the practice of laboriously cranking engines, they billed the improvement as an act of chivalry for helpless women drivers. "A girl can work it," one ad promised, rather than daring to suggest that men, too, might appreciate the innovation.
In later decades, women featured in car ads were adornment, standing in ballgown or draped in bikinis across hoods, reinforcing the message that cars (and women) were men's spoils. When carmakers did appeal directly to women, they seesawed between portraying them as responsible, capable drivers and condescending to their supposed preoccupation with frivolities. In the '50s Ford came out with Motor Mates, a line of coats and handbags meant to match certain Ford vehicles. (The handbags were made of "actual Ford Victoria nylon upholstery fabric.") Chrysler developed the Dodge La Femme, "By appointment to her majesty ... the American Woman," a pink and white car with rosebud upholstery that came with matching handbag, raincoat, rain hat and umbrella. It didn't sell. Same stuff in the '60s. Ford and a cosmetics company teamed up on a sweepstakes offering pink Mustangs as prizes -- "Wear a Mustang to match your lipstick," the ad said. A 1964 Studebaker driver's manual had an insert called "Going Steady with Studie" that archly advised women what to do in case of a flat: "Put on some fresh lipstick, fluff up your hairdo ... look helpless and feminine."
Well into the '70s and '80s, observes historian Margaret Walsh, American carmakers were slow to recognize the tens of millions of working women eager to buy their own cars -- declining, in some cases, to offer women credit at dealerships. Courtney Caldwell, the founder of a print magazine for the women's automotive market (now an online publication called Road & Travel, told me she was met with derision in the late '80s and early '90s, when she first started showing her magazine around Detroit. One Big Three marketer laughed and tossed the thing down; it flew across the desk and landed back in her lap. "It's still an old boys club," Caldwell said. "It always was."
Maybe, but when automakers fail now it's much more subtle, a matter of the men who predominate in most companies failing to anticipate the needs of female consumers. (For some indication of who's designing cars, consider that just 5 percent of American automotive engineers who belong to the engineering organization SAE International are women.) A story from Automotive News chronicles how, about 10 years ago, GM had 100 of its male employees attempt to get into a full-sized SUV while wearing heels, fake nails, and plastic bag skirts, and carrying purses and babies. Upon reaching the driver's seat, one engineer had a revelation that has occurred to virtually every woman: "I thought, 'Well, shoot, I would want my purse right at arm's reach.' " He wound up designing a console to store it.
But sometimes, the disconnect is more serious. Marketers I spoke with mentioned high-up trunks that make it difficult for women to hoist heavy luggage, and nonadjustable gas and brake pedals, which force shorter women (and men) to crunch up close to steering wheels and potentially explosive air bags. In 2011 researchers at the University of Virginia found that women drivers are 47 percent more likely to be seriously injured in crashes, in great part because cars are designed to protect men's larger bodies. The advertising falls short, too. Men get adventures in their car ads -- epic treks along mountain passes, Kate Upton bursting from her tank top while prancing around a Mercedes. Even when they're tasked with taking the kids for the day, as in this recent Hyundai ad, men get to break rules by taking the kids off-roading and racing motorcyclists. But advertisers seem to think women have no need for fantasy and instead, we get downtrodden realities -- a mom dutifully carting the kids to hockey practice, a bunch of self-identified "housewives" fist-bumping because their kids finally think their car is "cool."
All of which is what made those Cadillac ads from a few years back featuring a solitary, buff-armed Kate Walsh so powerful. The ads were the brainchild of a Boston ad agency that GM no longer works with, and they got tons of buzz by managing to be sexy in a way that appealed to both men and women. In one, Walsh speeds through a tunnel in a luxurious dark red Cadillac CTS, and asks, "When you turn your car on, does it return the favor?" In another, she lists her favorite things (dark chocolate, Italian shoes), and, as she slows down at a stoplight next to two suited men in another car, she adds, "and ... pulling up to the boys club in one of these." She grins at the men, and when the light changes, she peels away. I still remember the first few times I saw these ads. I wanted to be her.
Meanwhile, the Detroit auto show still poses scantily clad women around its cars like Christmas ornaments. Ninety-five percent of new car dealerships belonging to the National Automobile Dealers Association are owned by men, which may be why as a woman you'd still "rather put out your eyes with steel needles than go buy a car," says Jean Jennings, the editor-in-chief of Automobile magazine. Last year, Jennings launched a website, JeanKnowsCars.com, dedicated to demystifying the auto industry, and many of her readers are women. It's telling that such a site is still necessary, and that it comes from a journalist, rather than from the industry itself.
We need more myth-busters like Jennings, because many of the basic historical assumptions about women drivers turn out to be wrong. Contrary to theories about cup holders and rosebud upholstery, the data shows that compared to men, women are at least as educated in their purchases, less emotional in making them, and less concerned with aesthetics when they do.
For buyers under 35, women are more inclined to buy for reasons like reliability and fuel economy, whereas men are more drawn by exterior styling and an ineffable "fun to drive" quality, says Vicki Poponi, who heads product planning for American Honda Motor Co. And while information from Kelley Blue Book suggests that women use one less resource than men when researching cars, data from consumers taking over previously leased cars shows women are more likely to request inspections, while men are more likely to ask about the way a car looks. "Men are more emotionally driven," Poponi says. "Women are more rational."
Marti Barletta, a consultant in marketing to women, told me one of the reasons women have gained a reputation for caring about frivolous details is because they do so much research. By the time they arrive at dealerships, they've already logged countless hours online finding cars that satisfy their main criteria. Now, they're picking through minutiae -- what, precisely, makes the Nissan Maxima better than the Toyota Camry? (Could it be the number of cup holders?) These questions, Barletta says, contribute to an impression among salesmen that women care mostly about the little stuff. All of which is why Chevrolet's recent union with designer Isaac Mizrahi felt so awkward. Last fall, Mizrahi designed a limited edition collection of clothing and accessories "inspired" by the 2013 Chevy Malibu. The idea was that Mizrahi's skinny jeans and driving moccasins were somehow akin to the Malibu; heck, one might even wear them to drive said car. In videos promoting the effort, Mizrahi examined the closets of smart, stylish women, after which he took them for a spin in his Malibu, while praising its "gorgeous color" and the "red piping" on its leather seats.
I get it: Chevy wants to remake its staid image in hopes of becoming the choice of hip young consumers. But all that focus on upholstery winds up feeling retrograde. For an industry that talked down to so many of its consumers for decades, emphasizing fashion to women seems lazy, not fresh or fun. Maybe it's time for car companies to wake up and smell the coffee.
• Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.