Friday, August 5, 2011

Harley Davidson: How Pop Culture's Alpha-Male Gets Around

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                One arena in which gendered marketing has become entrenched is in the market for motor vehicles. Car companies have engrained into society’s consciousness a distinction between what men and women ought to be driving, to the point where car magazines release annual lists of the “Top 10 Chick/Guy Cars of the Year.” Often times this distinction is created quite subtly. Commercials for “feminine vehicles” like minivans regularly depict a “soccer mom” driving and a rowdy group of children in the back seats, and ad campaigns for the Volkswagen Beetle have historically featured the slogan “Flower Power” to cater to female audiences. On the other hand, commercials for “masculine” pickup trucks like the Ford F150 typically feature a grizzly sounding male narrator, include sequences of aggressive, muddy, off-road driving shots, and construct the amount which one man’s car can tow as a measuring post, alluding to the point that the more towing ability is synonymous with more masculinity. Naturally, campaigns like these have had an observable effect on society, and today it is a rare sight to catch a woman behind the wheel of a pickup truck, or a guy driving around in a Beetle. No product, however, has been more blatant about its gender distinction than Harley Davidson. To sell their motorcycles, Harley Davidson uses phrasing, hyper sexualized women figures, and bearded men to appeal to the tastes and sexual appetite of the supposed alpha-male, and the brand image not only submits to the harmful one-dimensional gender identities created by pop culture, but openly embraces and perpetuates them.

                Consider the role of the male in the ads featured in the collage above. The two images of men in the ads depict guys with beards that extend down to their chests, meant to capture a pinnacle level of masculinity. One ad, in fact, cuts out any other distinguishable features of the man and only shows his beard, heightening this effect. The quips that appear alongside these images are more telling. One ad proudly remarks that the man would never let his wife drive his motorcycle, at least until she turns 18. This quote has creates two key impressions: that women do not belong on motorcycles, and that for men, having a hearty sexual appetite and taking interest in young women who are perceived to be available is both okay and encouraged, regardless of the fact that it would be a crime for the man in the ad to have sexual encounters with a girl below 18 years of age. This ad recalls the ad for Norwegian “Pleasure Ships” which Jackson Katz discusses in his essay about violent white masculinity. The Norwegian ad, which implicitly glorified rape-related crime, left audiences with the same sort of impression as this particular Harley ad: that, despite being criminal behavior, “real men have always enjoyed [rape]” and rape related activity, and that it is “a desirable male pastime” (Katz 354). Harley, then, both creates this distorted gender ideal, and relies upon it as well, in order to sell their product.

                On the other hand, the role of the female in these Harley Davidson ads is perhaps more crucial to creating gender disparities than that of the male. Littered throughout the collage are images of blonde, sexualized models gracing the bodies of different motorcycles. These ads, like many which have been discussed in class, depict women as merely products of sex that are available to men at convenience, and use women with unachievable ideal body figures to validate and perpetuate concepts like the “beauty myth” and the “Cult of Thinness.”Another ad juxtaposes typical car seats with bike saddles, implying that the saddles are superior because women riding in skirts surrender an exposed view of their crotches. The advertisement does not contain any words to clarify this. Two side by side pictures send as clear a message as Harley can convey. This ad, then, perfectly exemplifies what Sut Jhally identifies as our “image-based culture” where images dominate consumer impressions as to the pleasures associated with different goods. As Jhally argues, “sexuality is a powerful component of gender that lends itself even easier to imagistic representation,” which is why Harley can publish an ad comprised entirely of two gendered images and a logo and consider this effective marketing (Jhally 253).Perhaps the most sinister ad, however, does not depict a woman at all, but rather implicitly reveals to audiences that Harley is aware with its harmful depictions of men and women, and simply does not care to rectify them. The ad which touts a bike as a “fatboy that’ll never lay off the carb” shows that the marketers at Harley do have at least some vague understanding of concepts like the Cult of Thinness and the Beauty Myth and how they manifest themselves in society and pop culture. Looking at the rest of the advertisements on the collage, though, it becomes evident that Harley’s marketers do not have any real guilt for the damage they are helping to create. This ad seems to indicate clearly that Harley claims little or no responsibility for their commercial effect on consumers, and indicates that their only real concern is with turning a profit.


Katz, Jackson. "Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity: From Eminem to Clinique for Men." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, 2003. Print.

Jhally, Sut. “Image-Based Culture: Advertising & Popular Culture." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, 2003. Print.


  1. This is a really interesting topic, with a rather funny concept that Harley is trying to convey. I'm not sure if the women in these collages would ever pair up with the men shown! Your collage is really well done, the quotes allow the viewer to understand the masculinity gender orientated advertising that Harley uses to sell motorcycles or any of their other products. Also your reference to the Norwegian "Pleasure Ships", helps the reader understand and realize just how harmful these messages can be. The quotation used from Katz ties in well to your argument.
    I was however just a little unclear of the thesis statement in the first paragraph. Your explanations seem to be a little broad, but do good job explaining the sexist marketing techniques Harley is using. I also liked your descriptions about the gender advertising in car commercials, however I'm not sure it was necessary in your piece about Harley.
    Overall awesome job with our last blog post! Enjoy the rest of your summer!

  2. Hi-
    I would love to comment extensively on everyone's blog posts!!! Please read the updated "Welcome" message on SOCS for the detailed reason for why it's taken me so long to comment on, and also grade these assignments! I rather post it there instead of here :o)

    I hope you'll understand that, in the interest of getting your grade submitted to PAWS by tomorrow, the commenting will have to be skipped and all feedback will be on SOCS in the rubric for this assignment under "Assessments."

    I hope you enjoy the rest of your summer!!!
    Take care,

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