As Young Lose Interest in Cars, G.M. Turns to MTV for Help

March 23, 2012

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Ross Martin, 37, is a published poet and a former drummer in an alternative rock band. Wearing Nike high tops and loosefitting jeans, he is the kind of figure who wouldn’t attract a second glance on the streets of Brooklyn, where he lives.

But on a chilly afternoon here last month he managed to attract a few odd looks as he walked across the 24th floor of General Motors’ global headquarters. Mr. Martin is the executive vice president of MTVScratch, a unit of the giant media company Viacom that consults with brands about connecting with consumers.

He and his team are trying to help General Motors solve one of the most vexing problems facing the car industry: many young consumers today just do not care that much about cars.

That is a major shift from the days when the car stood at the center of youth culture and wheels served as the ultimate gateway to freedom and independence. Young drivers proudly parked Impalas at a drive-in movie theater, lusted over cherry red Camaros as the ultimate sign of rebellion or saved up for a Volkswagen Beetle on which to splash bumper stickers and peace signs. Today Facebook, Twitter and text messaging allow teenagers and 20-somethings to connect without wheels. High gas prices and environmental concerns don’t help matters.

“They think of a car as a giant bummer,” said Mr. Martin. “Think about your dashboard. It’s filled with nothing but bad news.”

There is data to support Mr. Martin’s observations. In 2008, 46.3 percent of potential drivers 19 years old and younger had drivers’ licenses, compared with 64.4 percent in 1998, according to the Federal Highway Administration, and drivers ages 21 to 30 drove 12 percent fewer miles in 2009 than they did in 1995.

Forty-six percent of drivers aged 18 to 24 said they would choose Internet access over owning a car, according to the research firm Gartner.

Cars are still essential to drivers of all ages, and car cultures still endure in swaths of suburban and rural areas. But automobiles have fallen in the public estimation of younger people. In a survey of 3,000 consumers born from 1981 to 2000 — a generation marketers call “millennials”— Scratch asked which of 31 brands they preferred. Not one car brand ranked in the top 10, lagging far behind companies like Google and Nike.

The five-year strategic vision that Scratch has developed for Chevrolet, kept quiet until now, stretches beyond marketing to a rethinking of the company’s corporate culture. The strategy is to infuse General Motors with the same insights that made MTV reality shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom” breakout hits.

Mr. Martin calls the G.M. headquarters the “Death Star,” after the Star Wars headquarters of Darth Vader. He says he understands the unlikely melding of cultures he is trying. “We know we’re people who don’t fit in here,” he said.

The partnership is intended to transform things as diverse as the milieu at the company’s steel-and-glass headquarters, the look of its Chevrolet cars, the dealership structure and the dashboard technology. Even the test drive is being reimagined, since young consumers find riding in a car with a stranger creepy, Scratch said.

Automakers are realizing that if they do not adjust to changing youth tastes, they “risk becoming the dad at the middle school dance,” said Anne Hubert, senior vice president at Scratch, who leads its consulting practice and works closely with G.M.

Read the full article in the New York Times