Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Making a statement whether you like it or not: buying cars II

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.


Paul Soldera said...

Interesting. My take is that Americans (in particular) aren't used to making value/moral based consumption decisions as they fly in the face of a central tenet of American life - consumption is good, my right, and will ultimately make us all better off!

Limiting your vehicle size, the gas it uses, not eating meat, using/consuming/substituting for something LESS is not the American way.

Your car choice is challenging an identity - I'm surprised your neighbor didn't lambaste you for being unpatriotic, pull out an oozy and strafe your sissy looking, tree-hugging car!


Beecham said...

Perhaps relevant: Emily Bazelon at slate.com,
"Are Prius Owners Pompous?," which addresses, I think, some of the reasons that Priuses seem to raise people's hackles.

Everyone I know who has one, loves it and actually thinks it's really fun to drive.

sk said...

Thanks for the great comments. Agree with both of you. In my darker moods, I wonder if Americans think that every problem can be solved with more shopping. (I'm even suspicious of this eight glasses of water a day thing). And there's no question that lefty's can be self-righteous. But I still maintain that we, as Americans, tend to pass more severe judgment on people who make anti-consumerist choices. I mean, is anyone writing articles about what Porsche drivers are like? Or SUV drivers for that matter? Aren't they making a statement? At least the Prius has a real practical benefit. Maybe all this anxious self-consciousness is a sign of a cultural shift or maybe we're just opening another front in the culture wars. But I'd challenge Emily from Slare and ask: is it really so bad to want to make a statement about environmentalism? I understand it's less cool now that it's in fashion, but still, that doesn't mean it's less important. Or let me put it this way: Is pompously asserting that you care about the environment enough to pay a premium price for a smallish car better or worse than publicly declaring you don't believe in evolution?

Beecham said...

Fringe benefits that make a statement: for the Prius you probably get some more green leaves on the "I am green" application on facebook! . . . not sure if that's pompous or just spreading the word. :)

oh, and the 8 glasses of water thing was recently included in Top 7 (7?) Medical Myths:

cazmere said...


Your comments about veg*ns experiencing defensiveness are spot on. Being a long time vegan, it's always surprising to me how many times non-veg*ns go on the attack about my lifestyle choice. Somehow, me being vegan makes them accuse me of not believing in the good things God put on this Earth for us to eat, of not believing in the inherent goodness of dairy farmers, and of just being gasp, a fun-squashing, taste-depriving ascetic.

But, it makes it fun, using the current consumerist framework to make people think, to react. Good for you for getting the Prius--whatever your motivation, it's making people think about their transportation choices.