For the last 25 years, I have been a regular NPR listener. My habits have changed slightly since the advent of the podcast, but I still listen at least once a day. I generally love the coverage, but I’ll say this: Every time Morning Edition or All Things Considered talk about cars or music, I want to crawl through the radio and throttle somebody. This morning’s story on toy cars was no exception.
The dual premise of the story was that (A) kids just don’t like cars anymore, and (B) toy companies are taking cues from manufacturers on what they should be including in toy cars to make them more appealing to kids.
The story quoted Richard Gottlieb, CEO of Global Toy Experts, and Publisher of Global Toy News. “I don’t think children aspire to drive as much as they used to,” Gottlieb opined. “I think they aspire to have a cell phone.”
Please hold one moment while I kill myself.
OK, I’m back now.
I have a four-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl. My son must have 300 toy cars in a Rubbermaid container, and he will pull out just the Hot Wheels cars, which he can identify by the flame logo cast into the chassis. My daughter, Katie, can spot a green VW Beetle Convertible — a car which she notes will be her first car — or a Nissan Cube from 500 paces.
Kids Aren’t Interested in Driving
The story goes on to perpetuate one of the great fallacies in the last 20 years: that kids simply aren’t into cars. “Teenagers today are far less likely to get their driver’s license on the day of their 16th birthday,” notes the story.
Let’s gather some actual data on that: According to the National Highway Administration, in 2009, 31 percent of kids were taking their driving test at the earliest age possible. Wow, that doesn’t sound like much. But how many kids took their test in 1999, for example. Thirty seven percent.
So a six percent drop over ten years means kids don’t like cars anymore? Well, what about the change in economics? In 1999, Americans were about as prosperous as they’d been since the 1950s.
In 2009? Yeah, not so much.
From a story I wrote for the Boston Globe in 2010, with some actual facts in it:
Gen Y has credit card debt unlike any generation that precedes it. In 2010, Fidelity Investments said that on average, Gen Y’ers each have more than three credit cards, and 20 percent carry a balance of more than $10,000. But their credit card debt is surpassed by student debt load, now at the highest levels in history. According to a study in April by the Project on Student Debt, the average student leaves college $23,200 in the hole, a 24 percent increase from just 2004.
In years past, former students entering the workforce were confident that they could make a decent buck and start paying back the loans that come due the day they leave the dorm. But according to a study by Pew Research in February, 37 percent of adults 18 to 29 are significantly underemployed, a higher percentage in that age group in more than three decades. Compounding the problem, only 58 percent of Gen Y pays its bills on time, according to a survey by the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. And when they changed or lost jobs, a staggering 60 percent of workers 20 to 29 cashed out what little savings they had in their 401(k) retirement plan, an October study by Hewitt Associates reported.
It’s not that they don’t like cars. It’s that they don’t have any money.
Then think of all the restrictions placed on teen drivers. When I was 16 and got my learner’s permit in Massachusetts, all I had to do was find an 18-year-old with a year’s worth of driving experience to drive with me. I didn’t have to wear a seatbelt, and the only other requirement was that I not drive after midnight.
Now, Massachusetts’ graduated licensing require that a permit-holder have a 21-year-old along for the ride. At age 16 1/2, you get a Junior Operator’s License, which requires that if you have another person your age in the car, you have to have somebody 21 or older along for the ride.
And that’s far from the most limiting restrictions: in South Carolina, kids can’t drive after 6:00 pm in the winter. In Idaho, kids are banned from driving from sundown to sunup.
You think maybe the requirements have impacted the age at which kids are getting their license, rather than their interest in driving? Hmmm…could be.
“Six-year-olds are talking about green design in school”
The story goes on to talk to Felix Holst, chief designer of Matchbox and Hot Wheels for Mattel. When asked about what kids are looking for in cars, he responded:
“What we’re finding … for kids is that driving is not — it’s not an appetizing prospect. It’s very difficult. It’s very costly. It’s dangerous … They’re more connected now than they ever were before.”
Seriously? The five- and six-year-olds you’re talking to in focus groups think driving is difficult and dangerous, and they’re making economic decisions based on the cost of driving?
Dude, PLEASE find another job if you’re pre-loading the questions you’re asking kids in order to turn out answers like this.
I know a lot of kids, thanks to having two of my own. None of them care a bit about how dangerous or how difficult or how expensive a car is. They just like them.
When I had a ’68 Buick Riviera, I was the Pied Piper every time I swung that noisy, smelly, lap-belt-having, 430-powered gas hog into my son’s daycare. I had every kid in that place climbing all over the inside of it, just because they’d never seen anything like it before.
And it’s not a boy/girl thing. For the last two years, I’ve taken my daughter and five of her friends out to dinner for her birthday in my 1996 Buick Roadmaster. Those girls are absolutely NUTS for that car.
They not only want to sit in the way-back, they want to sit in every seat in the car, including the one in the middle up front. My daughter’s friend Zoe asked her parents to buy a car like mine when they were replacing their Honda CR-V.
But Holst finds something different. “Six-year-olds are talking about green design in school. … Six-year-olds are learning about energy conservation and recycling. They’re learning about pollution. They’re learning about gasoline engines vs. electric cars.”
Here’s an experiment: present kids with a Hot Wheels Prius and a Hot Wheels Trans Am with a screaming chicken on the hood and see how many opt for the energy-conserving hybrid.
Selling Kids Stuff They Don’t Care About
The story goes on to talk to Ford Motor Company’s Patrick Mulligan, who is in charge of licensing Ford designs to toy manufacturers. “It’s things like figuring out ways to integrate SYNC … into a toy so that children see how Ford is a company that’s at the leading edge of technology,” he explains.
Are you kidding me? I don’t want SYNC in a real car. What makes you think a kid wants or cares about connecting a cell phone on a toy?
If kids are starting to not like cars at all, it’s that kind of cynical claptrap that’s the root cause.
I’ll make it simple for you, auto manufacturers and NPR: Kids like cars. The more in-your-face and obnoxious, the better. Promote those, and kids will continue to buy your product.
Make things that force some bit of ancillary technology that you’d like to sell for a premium down their throats and we’re going to lose them forever.