Automakers are desperate to sell cars to ‘millenials' — who are hardly likely to be impressed with such tired, tacky sexism.

Stepping into the North American international auto show in Detroit this week, which opens to the public on Saturday, is like being thrown back in time. On almost every stand, a statuesque blonde or brunette twirled and politely posed for the cameras. Standing in heels and smiling all day can't be easy, especially when you are being snapped by the world's auto press. Just like the cars, the models at the auto show change from year to year, but year after year after year they manage to keep smiling.

Just occasionally, the models let their faces slip, as if they've woken from a dream to realise this really is 2012, not 1972. I'm not naming names here — a girl's gotta work — but I saw one who briefly looked like some vengeful queen from a vampire movie, angry-eyed and ready to kill. Then, as if she'd spotted my gaze, she snapped back into action, all hair and smiles. Detroit was saved from the attack of the killer car girl.

Using women to sell stuff is hardly new. And to be fair to the auto show, it's done in reasonably good taste. The shows in Europe and Asia (except China) are, by all accounts, far more Austin Powers meets Russ Meyer. No one gets draped across the hood in a bikini in Detroit; the “look” this year was more cocktail dress or catsuits than thongs and Jello. At Lincoln's flashy stand, designed by U2 set designer Chuck Hoberman, huge pulsating globes hovered above professionally chic women, who looked like they were plotting to take over the world, if James Bond didn't stop them.

And where was James Bond? There was a brief flash of man candy when a Jon Hamm-look-alike appeared behind the wheel of Toyota's NS4 concept car. But he was driving.

Otherwise, though, cut the LCD screens, knock out the hybrids, add a few tail fins and shorten the skirts and this could have been any car show since the Second World War.

What other major industry so blatantly ignores the fact that half its customers are women, and another (far smaller, but not insignificant) fraction are gay men? Sure, sex sells, but there are two of them, you know. About 34 per cent of all the cars registered in the U.S. are registered to women, but there are precious few women in senior positions at the car firms in the U.S. and even fewer in Europe and Asia.

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst at Edmunds.com, has been covering the auto industry for 30 years. “It's had its moments,” she says, diplomatically. Things are getting better, she says, but only recently, she turned up at a senior industry event where she was the only woman of the 75 people in the room.

This year, there was a lot of talk about “the millenials”. The car industry is desperate to sell to the next generation of car buyers.

It's easy to see why. There were about 80 million of them born between 1980 and 1995 and they represent the biggest selling opportunity for the car firms since the baby boomers. Sadly, they just aren't buying. From the chatter at Detroit, you would think this was because they are locked in a digital world of Facebook and everything Apple. The car industry isn't doing enough to attract them with cars that make the grade in the era of the iPad, runs the patter.

The truth is probably more to do with economics than ergonomics: cash-strapped, people have been putting off big purchases. The average age of a car in the U.S. has reached a record 11 years. If and when the economy does improve, those millenials will no doubt buy cars and move out of their parents' homes, probably in that order.

But what the industry seems to have missed is the ones with the most money to spend will probably be women. More women than ever are taking MBAs: last year, a study by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) found that 48 per cent of MBA-programme hopefuls were women, up from 35 per cent in 2006. Women earned the majority of degrees in 2008/09 across all levels, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Perhaps, the automakers should add a bit more man candy to next year's show. Some skinny indie boys and a few tattooed rockers, or whatever millenials are into. They need to do something different: no millennial is going to be sold by this 70s game show aesthetic. It's time to end the march of the dolls. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2012

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