Car makers going to surprising lengths to turn the heads of potential customers is nothing new. But consider this: Ford is distributing makeup (specifically, eye shadow and nail polish) that complements the colors of its cars. For its part, General Motors is sponsoring cooking classes, offering massages and staging fashion shows as part of its traveling auto displays. Not to be outdone, Toyota has weighed in by pushing its dealers to redecorate their restrooms to be more tasteful, while also constructing in-showroom play areas for the kids. What, exactly, is going on here?

Major manufacturers are making a major play for female buyers, that’s what. Never mind that their tools of attraction might be a tad stereotypical, or even patronizing, one thing’s clear: When it comes to new cars, more and more women are making the buying decisions—and automakers, realizing the fact, are aggressively courting them.

Depending on who you talk to, the car market for female buyers is big—or it is huge. There is really no disagreement that, in most families, women are the ones researching, comparing and buying the new car. According to automotive market research firms R.L. Polk and J.D. Power, roughly a third of new car sales contracts and registrations have a woman’s signature at the bottom. Another third of new car purchases are made by men on behalf of women (wives, mothers, girlfriends) who will be doing the actual driving.

According to Road and Travel, an online magazine devoted to automobile issues and car-safety topics, even when the guys buy a set of wheels for themselves, they will consult with one or more of the women in their lives about the purchase a whopping 90 percent of the time.

Given numbers like this, the question becomes not so much why automakers are reaching out directly to women, but why they’ve waited so long. Other numbers bear out just how badly dealers have dropped the ball when it comes to accommodating women who walk onto the showroom floor. A 2005 study conducted by Toyota revealed that 76 percent of women took a man with them into the dealership because they felt intimidated. Another report from Road and Travel concludes: “The No. 1 complaint women have with dealerships is how they’re treated as customers and consequently they prefer to gather product information online until its time to test drive.”

Clearly, there’s work to be done. Yet in their far-ranging attempts to cater to female car buyers, automakers are also discovering that a successful pitch is made of more than free lipstick. Studies show that female customers’ primary concerns are safety, reliability, functionality and price. (By contrast, looks—either the car’s or the dealer’s—matter little.) Research by ad agency Campbell-Ewald, based in Warren, Mich., shows that women also ask tough questions, do not decide on a car purchase impulsively and demand factual information applicable to real-life needs. For auto marketers, this is a lot to keep in mind. It’s probably also why traditional advertising is losing ground to experimental marketing when it comes to attracting women’s attention.

So far, what’s characterized the efforts of many automakers is the development of a curious combo: The traveling road show with a bit of health spa thrown in. Touring displays and off-site showrooms are contemplated to entice women to test-drive cars without the hassle of a visit to the dealership. They can ask questions in a no-pressure situation. And they can also have fun while doing it. Andrea Wells, Chevy account director at Campbell-Ewald, said: “We have to understand their mindset and find the right places to reach them during their busy schedules.”

Ford Motor has been at the forefront of this trend, including the fancy flourishes. Its Mercury Mariner launch treated women to cosmetic makeovers during last year’s Fashion Week in New York and its Mercury Milan conducted a “Make Your Day” tour which doled out haircuts, manicures and coffee at displays in five major cities.

This year the Ford Fusion is wooing female Gen Xers with Studio D, a traveling showroom that kicked off with a fashion show and awards party in New York at the close of Fashion Week and will appear in 10 shopping malls across the country by the end of October. Studio D, which refers to the sedan’s tagline “Life in Drive,” offers test drives, makeovers, workout tips, free music CDs and health information. The event taps the nonprofit angle by promoting local fundraisers for the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure breast cancer drive.

Kate Pearce, Fusion assistant marketing manager, said experiential and other nontraditional marketing is as important to reaching women as TV and print ads: “It is a way for women to experience our brand in a positive, light-hearted and non-threatening atmosphere.”

GM created its own three-day marketing party last August in southern California where the company invited women to get behind the wheels of Hummers, Saturns and Saabs. Called “Drive Your Own Style,” the event treated participants to massages, makeovers, lessons by golf pros and cooking tips from celebrity chefs. Real Simple and other magazines hosted seminars on topics such as travel and home organization.

Innovative as these efforts may be, automakers have reserved a share of funding for traditional print advertising. Spending for ad placement in women’s magazines, the obvious yet proven outlet for reaching this base, rose 24 percent between 2002 and 2004, from $184 million to $229 million. Last year registered only a slight dip as automakers trimmed overall print spending, according to TNS Media Intelligence/PIB. The flatness that most analysts expect for 2006 seems more a function of the overall woes of giants like GM and Ford—both of which are expected to reduce ad budgets—rather than any erosion in the commitment to reaching female buyers. Most print ads, moreover, are part of larger campaigns that integrate TV, print and the Web, according to Steve Sachs, publisher of the monthly Real Simple. The models advertised include sedans, SUVs and crossovers in all price points and the ads talk about a broad array of features.

Despite the similarities in approach characterized by this kind of event-driven marketing, automakers also are taking a variety of other approaches in the quest for female buyers. The trend seems to indicate an acknowledgement that while flashy shows and giveaways are nice, there’s a parallel demand for answers to the sort of tough, no-nonsense questions that women will ask. Moreover, it’s clear some automakers don’t want to go too far on the makeover front and risk delivering messages that many women would see as stereotypes.

“Our approach to women has been simplified,” said Price. “We are telling [female customers] that we have great products, but we aren’t patronizing them or trying to use womanspeak.” For example, at its events, auto shows and in its dealerships, GM is distributing magazine-quality booklets that give women rudimentary advice about car buying and ownership. Price, who created the guides, points out that while the booklets direct readers to a “Women in Drive” sweepstakes on the GM Web site, they also send a serious message: “We want all our divisions to think about women buyers and how to be part of their lives,” she said.

At Chevy, research showed that affluent women tend to be readers of wedding announcements in upscale newspapers, which is exactly where Tahoe truck ads show up. But the ads speak cleverly about “marrying” fuel economy and power, two topics that are hardly superfluous. “We’re taking information that’s typical for men and expressing it in a way that works for women,” Campbell-Ewald’s Wells explained. (Even so, earlier this year the same agency produced a spot for the Chevy Silverado featuring the message, “Girls Play With Dolls, Boys Play With Trucks.”)

Ford has opted to talk about women’s lives as much as about its cars in its campaign for the Ford Fusion. The TV and print campaign, “Life in Drive,” is designed to strike an ironic emotional chord in both female and male consumers. Running in mass market and women-oriented media, it shows familiar mishaps for women, such as stepping on gum in high heels or getting lettuce caught in their teeth, and positions the car as a break from everyday details. The campaign is built on “insights driven by women that men can relate to, with more female characters and a more overtly woman orientation than past Ford work,” said Liz Boone, Ford account director at JWT, Detroit. “It pulls women in with storytelling about life. It’s not just sheet metal and squealing rubber as a car takes a curve.”

Meanwhile, some automakers have concluded that marketing to women is best done through a gender-neutral approach. Honda aims its marketing at both sexes equally, steering away from ad messages or events that heavily target women or men. For instance, when Honda sponsors a rock concert tour it avoids bands that have a mostly male or mostly female audience, according to Tom Payton, senior manager of marketing. “Our buyers are about 60 percent women, so we look for events that match that mix,” he said. Both Toyota and Honda keep their feminine sides low key. Most ads deliberately focus on the car instead of the people involved with it, explained Sandi Kayse, Toyota’s national ad manager.

Variations exist, however, and allow for more literal pitching: one spot for the Camry Solara shows an African American businesswoman unwinding with “mobile therapy” as she drives her car. To make its dealerships more welcoming to women, Toyota began the “Image USA II” program last year, which recommends every dealer provide a children’s play area in the showroom, a coffee bar in the service area and cleaner, well-decorated restrooms to please women customers.

While automakers have made progress in reaching out to women, they still have a way to go, according to some observers. Andrea Learned, consultant and co-author of the book, Don’t Think Pink: What Really Makes Women Buy, said the carmakers who avoid being overtly girlish are on the right track, but literal approaches are still a common pitfall. A car ad doesn’t need to be populated solely by women and kids to sell to women, she pointed out. The best car ads show average looking women and men in slice-of-life situations. “Women respond when an advertiser fits the car into consumers’ lifestyles instead of putting it on a sporty pedestal with overly gorgeous models,” she explained. Learned gives a thumbs up to the Ford Fusion campaign but balks at ads with fashion shows and other elements that smack of female stereotypes.

Event marketing to women is also smart, say the pros. Showing off new car models in shopping malls, at special events and online is much wiser than encouraging women to go to traditional dealerships, say pollsters Celina Lake and Kellyanne Conway in their book, What Women Really Want. Women aren’t interested in convincing car dealers to be more responsive to them, the authors insist. Faced with an unwelcoming showroom environment, women will simply take their business elsewhere, especially to the Web: “Today’s women are bypassing settings and companies that ignore their needs, and finding new ways to get what they want.” That, of course, is a reliable car, not free cosmetics.