Ironic Masculinities: Driving a Hard Bargain (or not)

This weekend I was watching NFL pre-season, which of course means car commercials. I saw three commercials, two for VW and one for Chevy, that were variations on the same theme. Both play off the cliche of male customers engaged in intense, hard-nose bargaining with the dealership salesman. In both its the husband/father figure who is leading the confrontation with the salesman and both are ironic because (so the commercial tells us) the dealer’s prices are so good you don’t have to be an ultra-competitive alpha-male to get the best price

I especially like that in the first commercial the men are arguing about sports, while in the second commercial the customer insults the salesman’s masculinity to his wife only to reassure him under his breath “You’re a grown man.”

In both the VW commercials the women are spatially separated from the men and the haggling process. In one the wife and daughter can see the bargaining taking place but cannot hear it while in the other the woman is on the other end of the phone and not present at the dealership.

The result is dramatic irony because we, the audience, know something the women do not. Their men are deceiving them into believing that through their knowledge of cars (a traditionally male-dominated realm) and uncompromising toughness in high-stakes situations they have mastered the art of buying new vehicles.

But VW is saying that, in reality, buying a new car is not a stressful high-stakes situation requiring uncompromising toughness, i.e. it is not a macho place where only the strong survive. Nevertheless you can protect your masculinity by taking credit for the good deals which will come easily, not unlike a commercial for frozen food where the mother passes it off as her own cooking with a wink. “No one needs to know how easy it was.”

The Chevy commercial is very similar only the woman is not spatially separated from her man. In the version of the Chevy commercial I saw on TV this past weekend the wife strokes her husband’s arm at the end and says, admiringly, “Good job, baby” but I wasn’t able to find that one on YouTube.

Here the element of deception is removed, or rather it is displaced onto the salesman. The salesman and the audience are in the same position, we share with him the knowledge that the customer thinks they are bargaining when actually they are not. Unlike the VW commercial the wife character is present at the negotiation, but she is still deferring to her husband when it comes to knowledge about cars. Judging from her satisfied coos (not shown here, but I saw it on TV) the man might get a little loving later on having earned such a good deal.

I’m not buying it. I drive Hondas. Like a boss.

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About Matt Thompson

Matt Thompson is a project cataloger at The Mariners' Museum library. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill and was formerly a professor at ODU. You can find him on Twitter @m4ttTh0mps0n.
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23 Responses to Ironic Masculinities: Driving a Hard Bargain (or not)

  1. bryan138 says:

    Interesting sales tactics here. I found all of the commercial are mocking the image of a “strong man”, bargaining intensely and getting it his way. The VW commercials both to me show that the old image of a “man” is dead, we have come to point where we no longer need to be aggressive to get 0% APR for 60 months, thank god! And the Chevy one I thought poked fun at the stupidity of those guys who express their maleness by being a jerk-head. He handed him the sign from the car, he didn’t write or think that price out, just a side note. I would have kindly asked for a lower price then that, he got taken for a sucker I think.

  2. Kris Rais says:

    These commercials all come from the fact that there was a time that if a woman went to purchase a car, without a male present, the dealership or salesperson would consider this as money in the bank. Even as late as the nineties pressure sales would be quite common especially for American car companies. Every time I needed to purchase a car I dreaded going since I felt demeaned and taken advantage of because of their sales tactics. Like a salesperson pretending to go into another room to fight for me with their manager while I sat alone for almost a half an hour or battling over the price and what it included. The tips I would always get from male counterparts when “going in” would go like “Never pay the price that is on the ticket” “Always be prepared to storm out if you do’t like what you hear however long you have been negotiating” “Don’t believe anything the salesperson is telling you” “Don’t fall for the seasonal coating!!!” whatever that means!
    This made buying cars throughout my life very stressful since I don’t like to haggle and I want believe the salesperson. In 2008 I purchased my SCION XD from a Toyota dealership. By this time American car companies have had to emulate Toyota & Kia since they rate so high on customer service and the best buy for the price. My experience was wonderful, positive and I did not feel cheated.
    The commercials depicted above portray women that do not seem to be aware of the fact that men are no longer needed to purchase a car since haggling is nearly nonexistent except for used car dealerships that deal with high interest loans. It is also letting women that are watching know that VW & CHEVY will not pressure them since everyone pays the same price. It is an advertisement geared towards gender equality which I think is great. I like that the men are still holding on to one of the last chivalrous acts of saving the damsel from the evil salesperson.

  3. Scarlett says:

    I feel like these commercials portray that men are the ones who always handle things, while women step back and just watch. I have seen one commercial however that actually show a woman costumer making a deal with a secretary on a car and finishing the deal while the male car salesman runs up late to the deal. Most of commercials advertising vehicles usually have men doing the business well what about women? Are women incapable of handling their own negotiations? Or is it maybe that they think that the type of car that they are trying to advertise would only be more appealing to men?

  4. mziar001 says:

    I found this blog very interesting in various ways and false. The commercials reveal the male dominated task of purchasing a vehicle, but statistics reveal otherwise. Despite the reference to the masculinity of purchasing a car, specifically a Volkswagen (VW), males prefer V-8s, sports cars, and pick-ups, vehicles that VW doesn’t produce. According to J.D. Power’s Power information Network and R.L. Polk & Co. National Vehicle Registration database, over 80% of Chevrolet and Ford trucks were purchased by males while over 70% of VW Beetles were purchased by females in 2012. Furthermore, females care most about efficiency and price, yet these commercials show males “bargaining”. These commercials follow stereotypes by the general public, but statistical data proves otherwise in an environment that really isn’t so male dominated.

  5. JP3 says:

    The commercials chosen are clear examples of how sexual inequality can have such an influence on achieving any given task. Here, we experience how male dominance portrayed to have an overwhelming impact on making a successful deal on the car. From anthropology theory, these commercials would be classic examples of how male dominance is proven to be at an all time low when men and women are working together. I believe that although these commercials suggest male dominance is key in achieving success, but that there remains a social inequality debate upon where men and women put each on their respective status’s.

  6. auddieblue says:

    I think that these commercials still hold some validity. Personally, I know absolutely nothing about cars, so when I wanted to buy a car, it was the obvious choice for me to go to my dad and boyfriend for advice and company when going to the dealership. In risking to promote the stereotype, I still think that a car salesperson would think twice about his tactics if he sees a woman enter the dealership with a man versus seeing her enter without a man. Although this probably isn’t usually the case, it does happen, and that’s why the stereotype still exists.

  7. vduku001 says:

    I think that all these commercials express the same theme which was “masculine.” From all the commercials, you see that men were giving more advantages over the women by the dealers. The women were regarded by the dealers as someone who does not know anything about car; and you would see from the commercials,if a woman was alone, they will tend to asked for higher price on thier cars however, if a woman enter with a man, they will tend to lower or accept the man request. Furthermore, from all these commercials, I learned or noticed that all the dealers had the same views that women did not know much about car and they will tend to accept any price they labeled the car for.

  8. jcole053 says:

    Buying a new vehicle is a daunting task. Consumers must narrow down a wide range of automobiles to the perfect selection. The vehicle purchasing process has always been portrayed as salesman vs. a male buyer in an epic battle by the purchaser to get a deal they can brag about (or at least not feel ripped off). These commercials do a great job of making a satire of the stereotypical car sales event. It was funny how the company reassured the men that buying cars from their dealerships would allow them to skip the haggling process and retain their manhood.

  9. acluv002 says:

    I think these commercials were playing off of old stereotypes which are probably may be more true in our heads than they are in practice now. I know car salesmen and mechanics are infamous for trying to rip people off, especially women, but that was when cars were a newer invention. I’m sure that when the light bulb came out, people weren’t too concerned with HOW it worked, they just wanted one. Same thing with cars. It’s easy to not worry about how to fix your car until something goes wrong with it and the person trained to fix it can almost sense your naivety and ignorance like a predator sniffing out prey. This led to males needing to protect their spouses etc. from getting taken advantage of. Now I believe that you can’t tell who knows about cars just by looking at them. Just like you can’t tell who’s going to be rude and who’s going to be polite based off of any other factor (age, race, etc). You can still make generalizations because “car smarts” are male dominated but the ratio of males:females who are car savvy is narrowing over time.

  10. I think its interesting to see how auto manufacturers market their vehicles to the consumer. As in these ads they show that even the novice timid car buyer can purchase a car. And its interesting the way the male gender is represented in these ads. But I think what is a better illustration of the gender differences in automotive ads are when you can obviously tell when a car is being marketed for women or men. For example all the Chevrolet, Ford and Dodge truck ads are obviously gear towards men. But they are geared towards that tough and ready to do “man things” kind of guy like haul rocks and drive up a mountain or tow the space shuttle (Toyota).

  11. afraser218 says:

    you can tell from the commercials that women are taken advantage of when it comes to dealing cars. They are taken as someone who does not know anything about cars and have no knowledge about the prices. They could easily persuade a female to buy a car just by showing them the dvd player in the head rest versus showing a man the hoursepower or the type of engine.

  12. whurst001 says:

    What I find most amusing from these commercials was the concept that men are most definitely the leader when it comes to handling finances. This differs so greatly from my own personal experience. When it comes to the women in my life, most notably my mother (with my stepfather) and stepmother (with my father), it has been the exact opposite. What I have learned over the years is that the joint bank account that the married couples have is generally controlled by the female in charge. My father is given enough money generally to get through the week, while my stepmother handles all of the finances and purchases that needs to be made. I know for a fact that my mother handled her own car buying experience and used little input from my stepfather. Honestly, times have changed, and whoever can drive the hardest bargain and has the most mathematical sense should be in charge of the cash.

  13. Alicia says:

    I thought that these commercials were pretty funny. The cliche that men are the main car barginers is really silly to me, just because in my family my mother is the one to bargin while my dad is the one to usually sit back. This fact just makes the commercials so much more ironic to me. Also, Just as the women in the commercials are decieved, so are some of the viewers that are similar to me; in the sense that they dont necessarily follow the traditional scheme that men are the barginers of the family. Aditionally, the fact that the men still act as though they are driving a hard bargin although it is not necessary it amusing as well. Why do they feel the need to act like that?

  14. Kim says:

    Let’s be honest. How often do scenarios such as these ACTUALLY occur? While the message in these commercials is far from subtle, I think there is an undertone of societal critique which plays directly in to the stereotype of how an American family ‘should’ be. Fortunately, such stereotypes are beginning to fade. Unfortunately, however, commercials like this, where the man does the negotiating (or pretends to in these cases) and the woman naively sits back with the kids, help the stereotype of the patriarch persist. Granted, that stereotype is more greatly perpetuated by other facets of American society, but the fact of the matter is that commercials like these point towards the gender gap, and make it seem ‘ok’ to widen it, or prevent it from narrowing any further. However, in American society today, it’s increasingly more common to see a partnership in the family as opposed to a patriarch or matriarch (at least according to my own personal observations). While these don’t have any significant impact in and of themselves, the typified familial stereotype will continue to persist until all facets of society (yes, that includes the media) recognize that, nowadays, it isn’t PC to play in to traditional stereotypes simply because a majority of the population doesn’t fit that mold anymore (but hey, who wants to be PC, anyway?!). I wonder how many people actually went out an bought a VW after this. Just think how differently these scenarios may have been without the spatial separation of husband and wife. All that being said…I still want a Prius, and I still drive a Pontiac. Sorry, VW. You didn’t convince me (this time).

  15. ctayl059 says:

    Automobile production, mechanics, and sales have been predominately masculine in our society. The man of the household has been expected to be the main provider for the family and be the tough leader. So even though in these commercials the companies are following those stereotypes and social gender roles, they are also taking a satirical approach by making the men appear as if they are arguing and driving a hard bargain even though we know it is unnecessary. Men in our society today are still expected to be the macho man provider and get the best possible options for their families. But it shows that men are not required to be as dominant as they were because females have caught up to the amount of support they give their families. Males are just trying to keep their seats on top of the gender totem pole and show that they are and will continue to be the “boss”.

  16. ericadams66 says:

    I find it funny how men are almost always the ones handling anything having to do with cars. I find it even more fascinating how, no matter how many advertisements Danica Patrick, a NASCAR driver, is in, none of them are automotive related. Dale Earnhardt Jr. sells Mountain Dew out of the drivers seat of his car, Jimmy Johnson uses Cobalt tools from Lowes to fix his car, Danica Patrick sells domain names from her bikini…..

  17. dozto001 says:

    When watching these commercials, the last thing I think about is how the men are showing dominance. I look at these commercials as funny ways for car dealerships to sell their cars. Now, when thinking of purchasing cars, I feel that is more of an accomplishment for a men than a woman due to previous experiences with family and friends. All the women I have been around buying a car (sister, mom, aunt, close friend) just want a relatively nice car, but nothing sporty with that nice V8 engine with such and such horsepower. My father on the other hand, loves to know whats under the engine and all those muscle car features. I am like that as well. I may seem as if I am assuming, but I am just relaying off past experiences.

  18. ccrew05 says:

    In my family growing up my dad was the one who handled the finances just like in the commercials. Just like these commercials my dad would go above and beyond to get the price that he wanted. I remember hiding behind a counter while he yelled at someone over jewelry that he had bought for my mom. It was kind of like the commercial where the daughter and mother are separated from the dad. I could not hear what my dad was saying, I could just tell that he was yelling and getting his way just like the dad in the car commercial.

  19. rawpickle says:

    This subject really relates to the outlook of my father and how he feels when he goes shopping for products of high value such as a car which is very much a man job because he believes the man know the particular aspects of the driving a hard bargain due to his recents year of seeing the companies or people trying to reap the most out of the auto industryjust to make a couple of extra bucks. Yet these commercials give women a insight on what men talk about before buying a vehicle and how easy it is now for a women to purchase a vehicle due to the advance in technology that has improve every single car on the market so that they won’t feel as if they just walked off the car lot with “lemon” wiithout asking a males advice in the first place which could of persuade their decision.

  20. Mercedes Chapa says:

    The commercials depict the mans strong dominant role within a household and his family as superior and dominant. Typically in the past many men were and still are in charge of the financial decisions and aspects within a household, a common phrase for a child growing up wanting something they could not afford would be “ask your father.” This is referring to men being the deciding force and ultimate sanction of approval for anybody to make certain decisions within the household. Now in recent years with women’s rights movement and strides to equality many women are becoming the earners within the family and are the financial keepers, but at what cost do men feel emasculated if a women is earning the income and not conforming to the predominantly used societal norm? In the past I had seen an article that stated men do not find women as attractive as in the past if they are financially independent and successful, they feel intimidated. The article had stated “women aren’t just women anymore” The article further went on to state that if women want to find a man to marry they have to surrender to their nature, their femininity and let men lead the dominant role. As one can see throughout the commercials women did surrender their opinion and position on the car to the man and let him handle the situation.

  21. agoar002 says:

    As a man, I think that they’re rather entertaining because while we project a strong image to the opposite sex, we really rather not bargain back and forth. That men have to keep up this image of a traditional role is a rather shame and VW mocks it- that women rely on the men to make the ‘big’ decisions in regards to how the money is handled in the family as seen in the first ad. The second has a man on his own buying a vehicle, but even then he’s still being told what to do by his wife via telephone. The man seems to give in and is doing his best to keep up the charade of ‘being a man’ to his wife, but not the salesman. The ad is challenging the social role of dominance in relationships with ‘strong’ men at the helm of a household when in reality it’s the women who are in charge and pulling the strings behind the scene. That’s why it is funny to most people- men trying to save face while buckling under pressure.

  22. It is funny when you watch these because if you don’t think about it you look and see its just man/men looking ridiculous about pretending to tell a salesman off in front of his wife or family to make it look like he got a good deal on a car. When in all actuality he was just faking or speaking about something else. In one of them the husband is waving his arms and hands around making gestures that looks like he is angry or aggressive. (Making the point or insinuating that men aren’t supposed to be weak of passive when they want something, because they are men). If they are aggressive they won’t be able to get over on. To me when you actually look at it or read between the lines it is making the point if the roles were reversed and the woman was doing the negotiating she would be able to get over on. There is also female in any of the commercials doing the negotiating, i guess they are saying a woman on her own will get a crappy deal.

  23. jgard012 says:

    The commercials were extremely hilarious, yet I could not help but to see undertones of androcentrism.  This is heavily exhibited in the commercials representations of men being the only gender to bargain for a sale.  In my household, my mother is more likely to get the best for her money.  Although I do believe that women have the same perception as men to bargain, I must say that I completely agree that women are taken advantage of by cars salesman.  Generally speaking, many women do not know the ins and outs of motor vehicles when compared to male counterparts.  So, it is for this reason that many women are then taken advantage of. It is so sad, yet it is reality.

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