Buying a Green Car: It's All About Being Seen Being Green

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2010 Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius

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On the surface, buying a "green car" often doesn't make sense.

Or rather, it doesn't make dollars and cents: The extra cost of the necessary technology--whether it's a hybrid, a clean diesel, or a plug-in electric car--is often never recouped in fuel savings.

So why do people do it? Turns out it's all about image.

2010 Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius

Enlarge Photo

The 2010 Toyota Prius

The 2010 Toyota Prius

Enlarge Photo

2010 toyota prius first drive 002

2010 toyota prius first drive 002

Enlarge Photo

2010 Toyota Prius

2010 Toyota Prius

Enlarge Photo

Green-car buyers want to show the world what kind of people they are. PsyBlog describes a University of Minnesota study that showed the prime motivator for Toyota Prius hybrid buyers was that it "makes a statement about me."

For these buyers, the environmental benefits of the Prius were only fifth in the list of reasons to buy.

The study itself looks at "activating status motives" and discusses the "predicted reputational benefits of self-sacrifice" in public forums.

Translation: The kinds of people who buy Toyota Prius hybrids in the U.S. may indulge themselves in private, where no one else will see them, but want to be seen in public with less luxurious, greener products to bolster their reputation.

The British author of PsyBlog also tosses in various disparaging remarks about the Prius, which in his market is pricey and not as comparatively fuel efficient as other, smaller cars. (He also apparently doesn't like its looks, its performance, or its upholstery.)

Whatever the buyers' motivations, there's no denying the success of the Prius. Now in its third generation, it is coming up on a total of 2 million sold since 1997, and it's the quintessential image of a hybrid car--for better or for worse.

Even better for Toyota, it's purchased instead of far more luxurious cars, which brings a whole new set of customers who might not even consider the brand's dull but economical and reliable Camry and Corolla sedans.

On average, Prius buyers earn more than $100,000, so they could afford something pricier. But they want the image the Prius cultivates--technically advanced, thrifty, green--rather than the amenities of a more conventional luxury brand.

None of this should come as a surprise. People used to buy HUMMERs for exactly the same reason: Their vehicles served as rolling representations of their beliefs.

Last fall, Wired wrote about a small survey of 20 "U.S.-born and raised" HUMMER owners, whose feelings of being under moral siege were only reinforced by criticism of HUMMERs as anti-social and eco-hostile. In their minds, they became the "moral protagonist who defends American national ideals."

In the end, we think Ford's chief designer, J Mays, got it right. He said:

If you go into a person’s house and look at his surroundings, you’ll see exactly who he is. If you look at the same person in his car, you’ll see who he wants to be.


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Comments (11)
  1. I wish I could buy an EV without the "green" image. Honestly, my reasons for buying an EV have nothing at all to do with environmentalism. I don't believe in global warming, I don't recycle, and I make my living working for an oil company. Why do I want an EV? Technology, driveability, reliability, energy independence, and convenience. Over the long term, possibly TCO. It's not that I'm eco-hostile, but I really don't want to be cast as a smug environmentalist.

  2. @Washington Greene: Then you have options from Honda (Civic Hybrid), Ford (Fusion and Escape hybrids), Nissan (Altima Hybrid), GM (hybrid full-size SUVs and pickups), VW (diesel Golf & Jetta), Audi (diesel A3 & Q7), BMW (diesel 335i & X5), and Mercedes-Benz (various diesel sedans & SUVs)--among others. Each of these vehicles is pretty much identical to the gasoline version, differentiated only by the badge.

  3. @JV, I'll be buying a Leaf; I'm just wishing I could do so without typecasting myself as a green freak. The only hybrid that has ever been on my radar is the Volt. A big part of the appeal of an EV for me is the simplicity. Hybrids are anything but simple!

  4. I'm guessing this article was written by someone with petroleum interests....or does not know any veterans or anyone in the military at this time ..?If it's true what they say, using E85, will cut your petroleum use by 85%,[E85 = .85 petro and .15 ethanol] then if we can afford it why wouldn't people want to jump on board? If one person would normally use 600 gallons a year in petro [full gasoline], then that person could down to 90 gallons a year of petro. Right? Please let me know if that does not calculate. Sure, I would guess that corn based prices will probably go up some, but we could start weaning off of dependancy for foreign oil...It's all a balance , the economy will balance out...And who cares why people go "green" as long as they do it? The world is full of pretense and people can do what they want with their money.(Would I guess correctly if I guessed that at least one person in your family/group owns AT LEAST one COACH purse?) Iraq was approximately our 5th supplier of oil last year (maybe 252 barrels?) Wouldn't it be great to eliminate the need for THAT foreign supply for sure? (Canada and Mexico being #1 and #2 suppliers) Haven't done the math on that yet, but how many people want to start using less petro so our kids don't have to fight a 3rd war with supplier #5? Baby steps..................P.S. BTW, at this time I drive an 8 year old Honda but am in the market for a flex fuel / higher mileage car..........

  5. @hgk: As far as I know, no one in my family owns a Coach purse.

  6. No one should be surprised at this outcome, in the same way that BMW (insert any luxury brand) can charge a premium.

  7. I bought a Prius in summer 2004 because I expected oil prices to rise dramatically in the next 10 years:
    I was also worried not enough people would buy this transitional car to support the development of next-generation hybrids and electrics - luckily, sales took off, and now every big automaker is working on hybrids, electrics or both. Technologies like lithium-air batteries are getting funded, and cars like the GM Volt are almost in showrooms - just as I had hoped back in 2004.
    "Image" had nothing to do with it - once you're married, the car becomes just a utility.
    "People used to buy HUMMERs" - exactly. See oil prices, above.

  8. If more car companies offer electric cars and prices come down then we'll see it's not about being seen. It's about trying to do the right thing which is electric (which you mostly neglected the entire post).
    This is more of an early adopters issue for the Toyota Prius and all new technologies. It's because they want to be first. Yet for electric cars or hybrids or PHEVs its more about doing the right thing and making a public statement about it through the product itself. Look at the bumper stickers on people's hybrids. You'll tell where they stand politically,,not what they wish to think but what they think.
    The free market has not usually prevailed on electric cars. Price subsidies for oil vs electric, access to technologies for all market segments...common you know what I mean..Battery prices of lithium needs to come down in price, controllers need to be more readily available and be built HERE not in other countries. Biggest problem we are having now are fuel costs and importation duties for technologies over seas. Chinese batteries?? USA batteries???
    Do we want more Chinese or Taiwanese controllers and other necessary technologies built overseas..not here..and then have limited access to the technologies. Let's get real and build more hybrids, electric cars, plug in hybrids and give them a competing chance. Then let the free market decide. I know where they will go. They never let us down.

  9. Most Prius buyers are thrifty, green, like high-tech, and feel safe enough in a smaller car. If you haven't driven a Prius, you don't know what you're missing -- it's a very nice car for the money. And the car does make tremendous dollars and cents, any other car with similar image value is much more -- being green is a very nice side-benefit.

  10. I just bought a prius and you are right. I am a very thrifty person. It feels great to own something that is better for the environment, and for me and my family.

  11. Higher earners can buy whatever toy car they like. But hybrids and battery cars will never sell to the masses as long as lower cost alternatives exist. No one currently living will see the day when most cars are green. When we run out oil, then you'll get green car in mass.

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