Car Culture: Targeting Toddlers

I took my 20-month-old granddaughter to story time last week at the local library, where the theme of the day was “cars and trucks.”

Librarian Joyce peeled off yards of black sticky tape with yellow dotted lines to make a pattern of roads in the room and then hauled out tiny street signs and vehicles of all shapes and sizes.

car poster.jpgThe song of the day was “I’m a Little Sports Car,” sung to the tune of “I’m a Little Tea Pot,” with such lyrics as “I’m a little sports car, shiny and yellow, when I’m out driving, I’m a happy fellow. Beep, beep!”

The dozen kids in the room seemed to get the lyrics and made a grab for whatever looked like the little sports car on the poster put up by the librarian. It was all about holding onto a toy Porsche or Ferrari and ignoring the trucks and the sedans scattered on the floor. Uh, oh, I thought, imprinted for life and they’re not even two.

eleanor librarySuch an enthusiastic reaction to cars can give auto marketers a roadmap to the future and the next generation of car buyers. It’s partly why Fiat Chrysler Automobiles hooked up recently with Sesame Street to promote the Chrysler Pacifica and Pacifica Hybrid. Bert and Ernie not only help sell the new minivans to parents, but to kids, too.

“We are all products of early imprinting,” writes Jane Nakagawa, a division director at Honda North America and a longtime automotive product planner known for her unconventional way of thinking, on her LinkedIn page. “I moved from Tokyo to Los Angeles when I was seven years old. My life changed the moment my dad picked us up at LAX in his 1967 Chevrolet Impala. The car was bigger than the apartment we had in Tokyo. The color matched the big blue sky. To this day, I equate abundance with all things that are good — safety, success and joy.”

Some years ago, Porsche’s ad agency in California spent some time with six-year-olds and asked them to draw their dream cars. Almost all of them drew a red sports car. The takeaway: a built-in audience is waiting in the wings for such products as the Porsche Boxster and 911.

vw and me.jpgWhen I look around at the pictures in my house, I see lots of early car love and imprinting. There’s a picture of me hugging a 1976 Volkswagen Beetle, the car I purchased when I got my first reporting job. Retro is still one of my favorite automotive themes. In another photo, my husband (around age 2) is standing next to an early ’50s Ford woodie wagon. He’s still a fan of these family haulers — his parents owned at least three when he was growing up — but said he never liked to sit in the third row.

paul station wagon.jpgThe smartest automakers and dealers should not ignore the pint-size set, especially in this transitional time when we’re moving toward self-driving, battery-powered vehicles.

I clearly remember going to dealerships with my dad when I was in elementary school to help him “shop” for a new vehicle and walking away with a shiny toy version of a Ford Thunderbird in a cellophane box, courtesy of the salesperson. My dad got the real one in aqua and blue. That thoughtful practice of a dealership gift to kids seems to have been discontinued, which is too bad. The toddlers at the library would have gone crazy for toy versions of a Ferrari — or even a Ford Mustang.

Bert and Ernie illustration: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles

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