WHENEVER I hear carmakers bragging about their rejuvenation plans in China, I picture a car taking a little blue pill to make it bouncier and sexier.
In Chinese, the euphemism for the magic effect of little blue pills is “recapturing our youth.” That pretty much describes where the global auto industry is headed in China as it pulls out all the stops and spares no expense in its campaign to woo young buyers.
China is the world’s largest car market, and to keep it ticking along, carmakers have their eyes set on the generations born in the 1990s or later. In 2010, young buyers accounted for 38 percent of sales. This year, they are expected to comprise 60 percent.
What carmakers may be miscalculating in going after this new generation is that most young people can see through outlandish marketing stunts and radical model makeovers aimed at them.
Are the boardrooms of auto giants really in tune with young people? Does the “hippier” atmosphere at trendy auto events really resonate with young people like me?
Yes, we like to party. But is that a good reason to launch a new vehicle at a nightclub? We like to work out. But does a trampoline really need to be part of a car promotion? And why is Chinese-style rap being used to market a car of classic design?
Judy, an automotive journalist of my age, is a sharp-tongued critic of the new vogue in auto promotion. She said it feels like some carmakers are not “dressing their age,” and many have no class or dignity.
“I recoil a bit when I see dour gray-suit executives put on garish colorful T-shirts to mingle among us at auto events, but maybe I am being too ungrateful for some of the positive changes they have brought to our generation,” she said.
The auto industry has always kept its nose up, exhibiting a certain elitism that has traditionally kept it at arm’s length from consuming hoi polloi. At the same time, the millennial generation has grown up in the Internet era where egalitarianism reigns. When it comes to buying a car, a bit of subtlety works a treat. No one likes a desperate suitor, especially one with a name like Model Young.
When my friend Yvonne and I turned 25, we began to wonder whether our feminine appeal was fading. We took a good, hard look at ourselves and we agreed that if we were self-conscious about our age and desperate to preserve our youth, then we were really old at heart.
Many passenger car brands and companies in China haven’t yet passed their quarter-century mark. But the industry, with its best years probably behind it as customer exuberance wanes, is no longer a trendy mass darling. The Internet, which is much younger, has captivated the spirit and soul of the young generation with ever fancier uses and faster speeds.
“Youth is not a time of life; it is a state of mind.” That reassurance was written by American businessman and poet Samuel Ullman, who went on to define youth as “a matter of the will, a quality of the imagination and a vigor of the emotions.”
What makes cars “sexy” hasn’t really changed over the years. It still requires the courage and passion to relentlessly pursue better personal mobility.
If there is a fountain of youth for the auto industry, it must be at the frontier of innovation. Autonomous driving, electrification, connected driving, vehicle sharing. All these visions and ideas once seemed the realm of science fiction are now coming to reality, bringing disruptive changes to the auto industry as we know it.
When my friend Shawn switched from developing engines to electrified propulsion systems two years ago when he was 28, he said the thrill of adventure appealed to him more than the comfort of easy work. Since then, several European countries have voted to ban the sales of combustion engine cars and diesel-powered vehicles as early as 2030. That may put a generation of Chinese engineers out of work someday.
“I think being young means never giving yourself any limits,” Shawn told me.
He recently bought a car whose brand slogan declared “dare greatly.” It seems a perfect fit with his attitude.
Over the past few years, I have seen carmakers give old models a facelift to appeal to young buyers, only to find their success as ethereal as one’s youth. No dynamic or bold styling is time-proof. The fickle younger generation, glued to the Internet, is always seeking the next new trend. This is a generation of educated people who can actually understand what’s under the hood.
“The last thing you want people to see in you is a wrinkled soul, especially at my age,” said my friend Kenneth, who recently turned 40 and insists that passion for life is the cure to any mid-life crisis.
As a birthday present, he bought himself a roadster brand that used to be the fashion of English gentlemen. Now it comes jazzed up by all sorts of gimmicks. Kenneth said he didn’t see any of them before he bought the car and didn’t think it would have mattered anyway. After taking his first spin in the new car, he said he felt fast-reversed to his early 20s.
“When the top comes down, my pulse rate goes up,” he said. It reminds me of a bold TV commercial comparing a sexy blue car to a powerful little blue pill.
At the end of the day, we all have to acknowledge that there is no such thing as eternal youth. All we have are hearts that can stay forever young.