An Open Letter to General Motors on Expectations and Women in Advertising

05/26/2015 01:11 pm ET | Updated May 26, 2016

Dear General Motors,

One of your Buick commercials airs on my television on a regular basis. In it, a white man and woman peer out the window of their upper middle class home at their neighbors, the Garcias. A new Buick Enclave pulls into the Garcias' driveway. It's a nice car, but they don't recognize the make or model. The woman wonders aloud, "Maybe he got a raise." The man, who by this time has grabbed a pair of binoculars to see better, replies, "Good for him." Across the street, Mr. Garcia gets out of the driver seat; he is a very attractive man. The woman mutters appreciatively, "Good for her," and her husband looks at her, askance. A voice over says, "Enclave. One of five expectation shattering models from Buick."

The first time I heard this commercial I was in a different room of the house -- I didn't actually see it. I was listening with half an ear, but I heard enough that I assumed, when the woman said, "Good for her," that Mrs. Garcia had got out of the car, the implication being that she was the one who had got the raise and bought a fancy new car, shattering the expectation that only the man could be the one successful enough to make the purchase.

And I thought to myself, "Yeah, good for her! And good for you, too, Buick."

This was probably a little naïve of me.

The next time the commercial aired, and I actually saw it, I realized: the expectation that's supposed to be shattered in the commercial is that you would need a raise to afford the Buick Enclave; presumably, we're supposed to believe Buicks are affordable vehicles, something that anyone in the middle class would be able to afford, even though they (theoretically) look and handle like a much more expensive car. The woman ogling Mr. Garcia is just a little bonus bit of comedy.

Oh, General Motors. You had such an opportunity here to truly shatter expectations.

You see, I have expectations about women in advertisements. You probably do, too. Studies suggest we are exposed to as many as 5,000 ads a day, and sexism towards women in that advertising is a major issue. The bulk of ads I see featuring women perpetuate stereotypes. Women in ads largely fit into one of two groups: domestic or sexy (but you can bet, even if it's the former, the woman featured is probably conventionally beautiful). So I expect, even if I hope otherwise, that most of those 5,000 ads I see that feature women are going to reinforce that.

General Motors, every time you air an ad, you're choosing to feed into those stereotypes or to counteract them by portraying women as more -- more than cooks and cleaners and arm candy and sexpots and punch lines. Welcome to 2015, where women are some of the most powerful executives in business, women are regularly dominating in school, and a woman is a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States. Welcome to the future, where women are more.

You had a chance to take the expectation of a white, upper middle class couple that a man must have been the one to get a raise and buy the car, and turn it on its head by demonstrating that, in fact, a Hispanic woman was the successful one that bought the car. Extending your metaphor this way would have been not only pleasantly surprising and progressive, but it also would have, yes, shattered expectations.

Instead, the portrayal of the woman in your commercial as one of suburban jealousy, unflatteringly colored by sexual attraction to a man who was not her (clearly dismayed) husband, and where the success of Mrs. Garcia was based solely on the strength of her husband's wealth and good looks, was as unsurprising as it was pathetic.

What a shame.


Chelsea Stone