Cultural Knowledge and Gender in Traffic Safety Ads

by HerrEmil on November 1, 2016 - 4:48am

This ad by the German Traffic Security Council is part of a bigger campaign launched in 2014. The campaign consists of three posters to raise awareness about safer driving. As a side-note I’d like to mention, that 2/3 of the posters feature male drivers and the only woman driver is shown with other females as passengers. In this post I will show three elements that raise the possibility to understand that poster and give meaning to its contents, the elements are not ordered in any hierarchical way.

On the ad I choose you can see two person in a convertible driving through a countryside landscape. The driver is male, his passenger female. Both seem pretty relaxed and on his face there is a glance of joy. The slogan translates to “One is speeding, two are dying” and is one of the sensemaking (Weick 1995) elements of the posters. The ad refers thus to speeding and the risks of doing so.

Besides the slogan there are two more visible elements that constitute the basis for interpretation that this ad is about speeding inspite of the two relaxed persons shown. First would be the car and its location in a specific cultural context. The persons are driving in a BMW convertible, those cars are known (like all the other premium German car brands) for high speeds and aggressive attitudes while driving, also referring to a certain income class of the owners. The poster is showing us that the pictured car is indeed capable of excessive speeding.

The third element is the male driver. In a more profound process of sensemaking or understanding we identify a male person in control of the car. The specific western-industrialized cultural context gives us an understanding that males are the appropriate gender to manage technologies and machines, in this case a fast car (Cockburn 1981: 43ff). The male driver is concentrating on the road before him, his hands in an untypical position for high speeds allow us to see the logo of the car brand (BMW). This gives more space for interpretations with “accumulated cultural knowledge […]” (Spencer 2011: 19).

In the binary coding of gender women are assigned a passive role contrary to the “active men” (Gildemeister/Hericks 2012: 16f.). The female shown in the ad looks to the right out of the car, somewhat looking like in a deep thought. She is not looking upfront like one might do if you are in a dangerous situation (here: speeding), she doesn’t look uncomfortable at all. She trusts the driver and doesn’t see herself in danger. She as a passenger is passive, has no control over the situation and seems perfectly fine with it.


Why is the situation so calm and safe, if the ad wants to prevent speeding? One explanation could be that modern cars tend to give a more secure feeling than there is and that you don’t expect to die in a few seconds. Also the contra-intuitive setting might make you think twice over what you have just seen (typically these posters are placed on the Autobahn and you seem them only a few seconds while passing by). Also a misinterpretation is possible and the ad could fail its purpose (Spencer 2011: 18f).

All in all we have gendered ad that reproduces a male stereotype of an aggressive driver who is in charge of the situation with a passive female sitting next to him. The slogan emphasizes the responsibility one has while driving with a passenger (one person controls the situation – two die).

One question for digging deeper in the displayed cultural knowledge could be to compare this poster to traffic safety posters in other regions of the world. What kind of elements are used to create an understandable message that makes sense within a few seconds while passing by?  



Cockburn, Cynthia (1981): The Material of Male Power. In: Feminist Review No. 9, pp. 41-58.

Gildemeister, Regine & Katja Hericks (2012): Geschlechtersoziologie. Theoretische Zugänge zu einer vertrackten Kategorie des Sozialen. München, Oldenbourg Verlag.

Spencer, Steve (2011): Visual Research Methods in Social Sciences: Awakening Visions. London, Routledge.

Weick, Karl E. (1995): Sensemaking in Organizations. Thousand Oaks, Sage Publications.


Your post is impressive in that it shows no apparent bias and presents several possible interpretations of the ad being scrutinized, while remaining thorough and involved. I like how you caught the importance of the subtle messages being communicated by the image. One of your remarks, in particular, really piqued my interest: the idea that the ad “reproduces a male stereotype of an aggressive driver who is in charge… with a passive female” is one that I think reflects the impact of the patriarchal world view on society.
The definition of the word “Patriarchy” is “a system whereby men control political, economic, religious, social, and familial power.” The ad, while it does have a positive message, only helps to literally preserve the idea of the hegemonic man in the driver seat, with the woman as the implicitly powerless passenger.
The slogan of the ad campaign, “one is speeding, two are dying” unintentionally, yet accurately, captures the deeply flawed nature of the patriarchal world view. Because it is reliant upon the unobtainable ideal of hegemonic masculinity, patriarchal society serves no one. It may provide men with more power than the woman, but ultimately, no one comes out on top. It is a toxic social hierarchy which oppresses the “weak” and never truly validates the “strong.”

Here’s an article you might find of interest,

This is a great article, I like that you were able to interpret various issues that were represented in this ad. I particularly thought it was interesting that you said that the passengers seem calm to be in a dangerous environment because “One explanation could be that modern cars tend to give a more secure feeling than there is and that you don’t expect to die in a few seconds”, I have never noticed that before in speed prevention ads. I’m glad you brought up the issue of sexism in the ad both against women and men. There is a reason why the woman in the advertisement seems “passive”. In advertisements, women are often objectified, meaning degrading them to the status of an object. Because women are used as objects rather than people in the media, they can never express emotions as a person would. In the car advertisement, the woman’s lack of expression and passiveness shows that she is being represented as an object rather than a person. As you have pointed out, she seems relaxed rather than anxious when the driver is speeding. This is because women must always look “pretty” in any situation. Showing true emotions of distress or anger will make a woman look unattractive, which is unacceptable in the media world. This issue most often appears in movies, especially in male dominated movies.
Here's a short article about the objectification of women: