One of the more annoying features of our consumer economy—about which I have no right to complain since it’s my proverbial bread and butter—is that your purchases often make stronger public statements about your identity than you intend. I don't even have my new car yet and already my friends and neighbors are getting their backs up. “There was an article,” one of my neighbors said as we stood in the street next to her idling Tahoe, “that those hybrids aren’t all they are cracked up to be….”
My first reaction was: I’m going to enjoy this car.
My second was: Now I know how vegetarians feel. They might be making their decisions for any number of reasons but their dietary choices almost inevitably generate a defensive reaction among their fellow meat-eaters, as if they’d given up meat for the sole reason of making the rest of us feel guilty.
Check out some of the postings on Edmunds' (or other forums like this one in which hybrids are called hippie cars and car-guys revel in the end of the tax rebate) if you want to hear how heated car-enthusiasts get about people who—like myself—might choose a particular car because they don’t care much about cars. Or rather because they care more about buying less gas than they do about horsepower. Do I think I'm going to single-handedly solve the geo-political energy crisis? Nope. Would I prefer to buy less gas than have 200 horsepower and 4wd? Yes. It wasn't really that complicated a decision.
The whole moral panic that the purchase of a hybrid (or any semi-unconventional consumer choice) can generate seems a phenomenon worth further exploration. There has, of course, always been social pressure motivating our consumer choices, without which the whole term "badge brand" would not exist. But it seems our rapidly warming planet (among other things about which more later) has created a new room for moralizing consumer choice in a way we haven't seen in awhile and reminds me of nothing so much as the culture wars I endured as a graduate student.
Not making a moral judgment myself here so much as a marketing one. Researchers have recently been attentive to the rise of what they call value-based choices, but most of the work I've seen simply asserts that more consumers are responding to these pressures without detailing how these pressures interact with other forces and motivations. I'd be curious to hear about how the experience of value-based choice evolves over time, for example, in relation to backlash, the brand's ability to maintain moral credibility, the endurance of this credibility, etc. It's probably out there. I'll go looking for what I can find now.