Paul Sancya  /  AP file
Carmakers are spending plenty of money on billboards — along with TV, radio and magazine advertisements — to tap into Generation Y, but non-traditional ad campaigns seem to be the real success.
Joe Myxter, msnbc.com
By Travel editor
msnbc.com
updated 1/6/2006 4:08:33 PM ET 2006-01-06T21:08:33

You’ve seen them: Commercials where automakers are pitching their wares to the youth of America. Maybe it’s the young woman in the shiny shirt dancing to some fast-paced techno music in her sporty, small but hip compact car. Or perhaps it’s the group of friends driving up the sides of mountains to get the breathtaking view normally reserved for people who jump out of airplanes.

While these situations certainly aren’t realistic, the underlying intention is. Young American consumers have money to spend, and carmakers are desperately trying to tap into the source.

There are 4 million Generation Y drivers that will come of driving age every year through 2010, according to one published report, and automakers have noticed. This has changed the way young buyers are seen.

Young drivers shouldn’t be viewed as “sniveling punks,” says Lonnie Miller, managing director for Polk Center for Automotive Studies. “First-time buyers don’t like the notion that they are kids with their parents wiping their noses. That image isn’t real.”

Young car buyers don’t have the type of money to drop on a ride that an established professional does, but they often know what they want.

Be practical
Practicality and style are major considerations among the key 18-to-24-year-old age group. These drivers don’t want to break the bank, but also don’t want to drive around in a vehicle that will embarrass them.

Gen-Y buyers, then, focus on sound systems, having a place to plug in their MP3 players and other options, Miller says.

The ability to upgrade is another consideration, he says. Millions of dollars are spent after owners make their initial purchase. “Younger buyers tend to want to upgrade vehicles more than older buyers.”

Young drivers in the market also tend to be savvy, and they do their homework.

Interestingly, despite the perceived high level of social consciousness among young people, many don’t show interest in hybrid vehicles.

In one study showing what young people would like to drive, fewer than one percent cite hybrids, and they skewed female, according to Irma Zandl, president of the Zandl Group.

“While the number of consumers who are aware of the environment is growing, it is still a relatively small group,” she said.

Polk’s Miller suggests price could have a lot to do with that, as young buyers aren’t in the financial position to purchase the more expensive hybrids, even if environmental issues are a concern.

How to reach them
Increasingly, non-traditional advertising is playing an important role in reaching first-time car buyers.

Toyota stands out as a company that has successfully gone beyond print, TV and radio ads to reach its young audience.

The carmaker has aligned itself with music events and other venues to show off its popular Scion line.

Miller points out that the Scion Xb is a strong seller among young buyers, while the Honda Element is not, despite being targeted to the same audience.

“A lot of that is how they aligned themselves with cross promotion,” he said.

Even so, next time you turn on the tube, don’t be surprised when you see that young group of friends playing Frisbee atop the Grand Canyon.

Joe Myxter is a 29-year-old business editor. He drives a 1998 Ford F-150.

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