Why Fiat owner's manuals shouldn't comment on women's legs

June 10, 2016

Despite the tone of America's current presidential campaigns, it is, in fact, 2016. In theory, companies should understand the kinds of actions that might be interpreted as racist or sexist.

Unless, of course, those companies make laundry detergent in Italy or China. Or unless they're Fiat.

Alas, Fiat has learned that the hard way, after facing serious backlash over an owner's manual distributed to customers in Argentina.

Most startlingly, the manual assumed that cars would always be driven by men, with women only riding as "co-pilots" in the passenger's seat or back seat. It also assumed that women don't know how to wear pants.

Among the most egregious quotes from the manual (translated from Spanish by the BBC):

"If a lady's skirt is too short, we recommend that she travel in the backseat to keep our concentration."

"If the skirt is not that short but you tend to have a wandering hand, she should also travel behind."

Fiat says that the owner's manual has been pulled, but the Facebook page "Ni Una Menos" ("Not One Less") has posted several photos of the manual's pages. That means that they're on the internet, and since the internet is forever, those images will be, too.

Our take

Normally, we try to give companies the benefit of the doubt when they're staring down the barrel of a PR crisis. We understand that intentions can be misconstrued, or that human beings in front of microphones can go off-script. (Again, see the U.S. presidential election.)

In this case, we're not feeling that generous. The division that put together this manual--whether it was written and designed internally or by a third-party--failed in both content and tone. Management failed by approving it. Dealerships failed by handing it out. 

Seriously: outside Saudi Arabia, how can anyone assume that the driver of a car will always be male? Or straight? That women will always be passengers, with no value other than their sexual allure? (FYI, the manual insisted that female co-pilots should "at least have nice legs".)

It's especially appalling that this would happen in Argentina, which has been grappling for years with the issue of violence against women. In fact, the group "Ni Una Menos" was launched to support a demonstration in 2015 that rallied in favor of enforcing laws that prohibit hate crimes based on gender.

Pulling the owner's manual is the least Fiat can do. How much further will the company go to make things right?

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