Getting Young People Back Into Cars Is Auto Industry Job #1

Maybe Kia could have been just a little less transparent about marketing cars to kids than this Super Bowl ad from last year. Photo: ##

While the choked parking lots at many suburban high schools might mislead you, young people today are less interested in driving and owning cars than their counterparts in previous generations. This is happy news for environmentalists and complete streets advocates, who see fewer vehicles on the road as key to a healthier, wealthier society. For the global auto industry, though, it is an existential threat not to be ignored.

Generation Y’s reluctance to embrace car culture may be temporary, reflecting merely the tough economic times, especially for those burdened with college debt. But studies show teens now maintain connectivity through the internet, not though cars, and teen driving rates have been in steady decline since the late seventies. So young people’s lack of interest in driving may presage a more fundamental shift in how we connect with other people, where we choose to live and work, and how we construct our identities. Either way, the auto industry isn’t taking any chances. Here are just a few tactics car makers are employing to take back the future.

Ratcheting up marketing to kids. Marketing cars directly to children pays off big for car companies even though they won’t be driving or buying their own for years. American children in particular hold real sway over family purchases: more than half of parents surveyed by JD Power said their children had meaningful input in choosing the family vehicle.

Children also carry into adulthood the brand awareness that marketing creates. Many adults own or still lust after their childhood “dream car.” So, in the 1990s, preschoolers started seeing ads created for them on shows like Blue’s Clues. And the Kia Sorento ad with toys whooping it up on a Vegas joyride, the Town and Country ad in which kids on a sidewalk envy kids riding by in the minivan, and the VW Passat ad starring that achingly cute boy dressed as Darth Vader are a few of the growing slew of commercials targeted at children as much as their parents.

Traditional ads are only part of a marketing mix that increasingly includes social media, which can cut parents out of the loop and get kids marketing to each other (one early successful product launch using social media had young people passing virtual BMW keys among Facebook friends). At the local level, Ford dealers have teens recruiting potential car buyers in return for money for their high schools.

Going Urban. Young adults have reversed the trend their parents set by showing their preference for living in cities rather than suburbs — and the car industry means to follow them there. The iconic advertising image of the lone vehicle winding through a stunning wilderness is being replaced with that of a car traversing a gorgeous or gritty cityscape.  Once solely the backdrop for certain luxury vehicles, the city now provides the setting for ads hawking entry-level cars such as the Ford Fiesta, Kia Soul, and Fiat 500.

Better Living Through Car Ownership. Other types of marketing geared toward wooing young urbanites back to car culture are perhaps more insidious. To co-opt young people interested in urban issues, efforts are underway such as “Future Mobility Now”, which “is inviting Europe’s brightest young talent to get involved and have a say on the big issues facing the transport industry.” This initiative, funded by the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association, held a conference this summer at which Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche gave the welcoming speech to Gen Y “delegates” who considered such leading questions as, “How can cars and transport help us lead better lives?”

Caring about sharing. Car-sharing, whether cooperative or commercial, arose as a way to reduce car ownership and increase mobility options for people who don’t need or want to own a vehicle. It remains to be seen if it will deliver on its potential to cut down on traffic, pollution, and household debt now that the automakers have decided to turn this potential threat into an opportunity.

Through its recent partnership with Zipcar, Ford is bringing its sedans and SUVs to college campuses across the US. The company’s stated goal is to allow students to “experience” its “latest fuel-efficient vehicles, while helping them reduce their cost of living and help relieve congestion on campus.” While this sounds terribly noble, the battle for advantage in a slow-growth market could well be won this way. It’s no surprise that on the heels of Ford’s deal, GM announced it was teaming up with peer-to-peer network Relay Rides.

And there’s always the chance that this driving “experience” could lead students to view ownership of these vehicles, loaded with connectivity and luxury, not as future needs but immediate wants. Undermining the social good to come out of car-sharing may not be the industry’s purpose in entering the market, but they’ll surely benefit from this potential side effect.

Auto industry leaders, it seems, take young people’s disinterest in a car-dependent lifestyle seriously. Advocates for other transportation options should also be inspired to push even harder for smarter planning, better transit, and greater safety for cyclists and pedestrians. Demographics may seem to favor change, but a deep-pocketed industry is determined to turn that tide, and they’re just getting rolling.

Anne Lutz Fernandez, a former investment banker and marketing executive, is co-author, with anthropologist Catherine Lutz, of Carjacked: The Culture of the Automobile and its Effect on Our Lives.

18 thoughts on Getting Young People Back Into Cars Is Auto Industry Job #1

  1. I remember when it was time to get my driver’s permit, at 15, how much pressure my parents put on me as if it was time to obtain a “rite of passage,” and how much I was scared to drive because I didn’t want to kill someone or get killed. My parents are loving people, but they saw my fear and apprehension as some kind of weakness and that I should just get over it. Such is the mindset of our automobile dominated lifestyle, being totally blind to the dangers of driving and just accepting it as no big deal. Hopefully more young people are seeing the dangers of driving and treating it as seriously as it needs to be.

  2. The last few weeks I have (remarkably, for me) watched a few pro and college football games with my husband.  Holy Toledo, the constant barrage of car ads!  If not every other commercial, then every third commercial (alternating between ads for drugs you don’t need to buy, life insurance you don’t need to buy, and diamonds you don’t need to buy. Throw in some beer for good measure.) Sometimes the ad pretends to be a car ad and then turns out to be a diamond or a new James Bond movie ad.  But no, it’s co-branding!  Both are being sold in the same ad!  Perhaps the confusion is intentional?

    The amount of money spent on brainwashing the American consumer into buying a new car every year is incredible. In fact, it could be said that the car industry makes the football industry (college and pro) financially possible. My kids are falling for the Nissan Leaf ads. “Mom, it’s electric and green. Why don’t we get one?” Me: “Because if we buy a new car, we can’t send you to college?” That generally dims the discussion, especially if we move on to how biking, walking and public transit are even greener than electric cars, much cheaper, etc.

    With my kids older now, cartoons and Disney channel don’t show up on our TV anymore.  Are car companies brash enough to actually advertise during these kinds of shows?

  3.  For the older Generation a car symbolized that freedom to go anywhere, socialize, and connect

    the Youth today lust over the latest smartphones. A smatphone is the tool that connects and allows them to socialize 24/7 365 days a year. Cars just cant compete.  

    nobody goes out and cruises the boulevard to socialize 

    everyone now is on Facebook  chatting away and either taking a bus riding a bike or asking for a ride to get to the latest social function

    Car manufacturers are going to have to look at becoming more than just car companies but mobility companies.


  4. This parallels the recent horror of some people realizing that cities are remaking themselves as viable places for people to live, raise familes and age…all potentially as first-class citizens without cars. Could this be what’s really behind the sudden outrage over bike-ped infrastructure? 

  5. I have been using Zipcar for years now, and I have to say one of the real benefits is getting to get a feel for a lot of different cars.  I just drove the Volvo S40, and loved it.  I have also become partial to the Nissan Sentra, with good legroom.  I think Honda has done a great job with the new Civics.  Basically, I’m a much more educated consumer about cars when I’m ready to buy, and I have Zipcar to thank for that.

  6. We need to counteract this by getting out the message loud and clear that a person can live a good life without owning a car.  The fewer people owning cars, the more money is freed up to pay for other options.

    Automobile manufacturers should think about retooling part of their production lines for other purposes, such as building high-speed trains, or perhaps even velomobiles.  And they should totally abandon the internal combustion engine within the next decade.  With changing patterns of car usage (i.e. shorter trips), plus much better batteries, there is little reason to continue building cars which depend upon cheap oil to run.  Electric cars are the future of whatever will remain of the auto industry.  Gas cars will be an increasingly hard sell as oil prices continue to rise, especially to the younger generation.

  7. There’s no reason for this “us vs. them” mentality in transportation.
    Japan has high-speed rail and drift racing, crowded subways and busy car factories, bicyclists and auto enthusiasts.
    Why can’t this attitude be translated on the other side of the Pacific?

  8. Teens should learn to drive whether they will own a car or not, though. In tough times one can take a job that requires driving skills. Without a license I wouldn’t have been able to get myself through college.

    If Damien, for example, doesn’t get his kid licensed at 16, 17, whatever, I would say he’s an unfit parent.

  9. Tough luck, you greedy automakers!
    Things have (thankfully!) changed, and people are less interested in wasting their lives in traffic nightmares and parking headaches, than they did 20-30 years ago.
    We want sustainable future and investing in better living options, such as public transit, walking, and healthy living in urban environments, including parks and family outdoor activities.
    So – please stop shoving your car addiction and “people have to drive” propaganda up our a**es!
    Suburban sprawl is getting outdated,
    we are entering the stage of American transformation: moving to urban environment for sustainable, healthier lifestyles.

  10. As a contrary opinion to Spokker’s post below, my son who is 21 doesn’t have a driver’s license. His not being a licensed driver has saved us thousands of dollars in insurance costs that we have been able to put towards his college education. Not buying him a car saved even more money that went towards college. He goes to a college that is very bike friendly and doesn’t allow kids to bring a car to campus their freshman year.  Both this summer and last he worked at internships that paid him quite well. He was able to commute to both jobs via train and bicycle. He is saving most of what he made last summer to take a trip to Europe next summer after he graduates. (And he will graduate without debt.) He has a job offer to start work next fall. All achieved without a driver’s license.

    This is not to say no one should get a driver’s license ever again. But a driver’s license is not a requirement a) to make money; b) to get through college; or c) to navigate jobs and adult life. While I may have pangs of regret for things I might have done to be a better parent these last two decades, believe me, I feel absolutely no guilt over not forcing my son to get a driver’s license. He will do it if and when he has a reason to.

  11. Ummm… where do you people live? A car is a requirement in most places to get around. Without a car, you cannot get to work on time, go to the store, the doctor, etc.. I would love to not own a car, but it is just not realistic.

  12. “Non-Redneck”, where do you live? In most places you can get along just fine without a car, even in medium sized metros. The main issues are timeliness – easily fixed by bicycling, or by hitting the gym or having breakfast before work if the bus is unreliable (most rail is 90%+ reliable) – and late night service, which is much less than in other cities around the world. I’ve shopped on transit and with portable carts it’s not that big a deal. In most areas, transit will take more time, but by being on transit and renting a car for the weekends when you need it, you can save a lot of money that way. For an average young adult, the fixed costs of a 10 year old Japanese car and insurance will easily run $300 a month. A $200 bike and $75 bus pass will work just fine. Not glamorous, but certainly adequate.

  13. As a counterpoint to Spokker’s post, I’m 49 today and have never had a driver’s license.  I briefly had a learner’s permit in my mid 20s, but lost interest once I saw that driving was mostly an expensive chore, not the exhilarating joy ride the car commercials made it out to be.  There has been precious little I couldn’t do on account of not having a driver’s license.  Sure, some jobs may have been unavailable to me, but so what?  If I factor in the cost of car ownership, I’m better off taking a job where I don’t need a car, over one where I do, even if I make $10,000 less.  And then there’s the value of my time.  Time spent driving to work, actually to anywhere, is 100% wasted time.  Driving on public roads in typical traffic conditions at legal speeds isn’t the type of enjoyable driving which the auto makers love to advertise.  Rather, it’s boring, stressful lost time with no redeeming value.  That time is certainly valuable to me.  I’d rather spent it doing any one of 100 other things, even sleeping on the train.  The final nail in the coffin is I get car sick on anything but the shortest trips.  Car travel therefore is worthless to me on the longer trips where there might not be any viable alternatives.  For the shorter trips I could tolerate it, bus, train, even bike will work as well or better.

    If you ask me, I think it constitutes borderline child abuse pushing a teenage to obtain a driver’s license if they have no interest in obtaining one.  Some people, perhaps most, just aren’t ready to drive at that age.  Some will never have the desire to drive.  We need to accept this reality, and think of how we can accommodate a non-driving population which is only going to become larger.  Eventually, most baby boomers will be too old/infirm to drive.  And a good number of today’s 20-somethings will opt out of ever obtaining a license.  A good number of those in between have already said once their present car is beyond repair, they won’t be getting another one.

    The people have spoken.  Now we need those on charge to finally catch on to the fact that we want non-auto transportation options, and not just in big cities.

  14. I remember when I was 16, and took the driver’s ed class, and everyone was looking forward to getting their license.  I wonder if I was the only one who DIDN’T really want my license?  I didn’t really want to drive a car.  I rode my bike to school every day (or walked), and I enjoyed that freedom over taking a school bus, being with snotty teens I had nothing in common with.  I felt that the “coming of age”, to have the opportunity to get a license and/or drive a car was something I couldn’t avoid.  It was “making” me become more of an adult…when in reality, I was quite happy with my carefree life.  Having a license/car was making me feel more “responsible”…responsible for so much more than just my bike.  I know, we all have to “grow up” sometime…  And having a car DOES offer you the ability to get around to a job or whatever, much easier.  Not many teens want to bike to their job and arrive in sweaty clothes or wet from a rainfall.  Of course, I didn’t see that back then.  Not many people biked to work at that time, and the subway wasn’t built then, so you just had the bus as an option…which didn’t cover a lot of areas you needed/wanted to go (and still doesn’t – to a degree).  At least teens have more options available to them now, and it’s more acceptable to bike or take public transportation.  It may not be “cool” to arrive by bike or public transportation, but at least you can save a bit of money that way. 🙂

  15. “In most places you can get along just fine without a car, even in medium sized metros.”

    Nonsense. I live in the Northeast — a notoriously public-transportation-friendly region of the country — and even up here, outside of the Boston/New York metropolitan areas, you’re SCREWED if you don’t have a car. Everything is either too rural for public transportation to be viable, or you’ll be forced to ride delapodated buses with Puerto Ricans, Blacks, and other jealous subhuman filth who will pickpocket you, mug you, or assault you for being white (and thus an “easy target” in the dog-like minds of these ghetto animals).

    The only places up here (and in most of the U.S.) where public transportation is a viable option, are so GOD-DAMNED EXPENSIVE, that in order to afford to live there your average 20-something will be forced to either live with their parents, or to live in a 2-bedroom apartment with 7 roommates like a fu?king Mexican. This country is absolutely fu?ked. There’s no saving it.

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