Why do people buy Priuses?

Researchers discover the truth behind hybrid lust.

Published January 6, 2006 7:34PM (EST)

Why are Americans swooning over Priuses? Well, one reason is that they are always in "permanent search of an identity," according to the French marketing guru Clotaire Rapaille. I ran across that quote in a fun paper by three University of California at Davis transportation studies researchers who are trying to understand why people buy hybrid cars.

(A tip of the hat to the blogosphere: This morning, the prolific environmental blog Treehugger referenced a December interview with the Davis researchers posted at HybridCars.com. A little googling located the full research paper, published in April.)

The paper discusses the results of lengthy interviews with Northern California hybrid owners, and in large part confirms earlier speculation published here as to why some people are going gaga over hybrids. For a majority of the owners surveyed, the purchase of a hybrid is not motivated by fuel-saving concerns. The real incentive is one's own image as a responsible green citizen of the world. The symbolic effects of hybrid ownership are at least as powerful, if not more so, than the functional reality.

The idea that cars play a role in identity formation is surely not earthshaking. It's been the central element in only about a trillion car commercials. But it's still intriguing to drill down into the stories told by these hybrid owners. Because their concern is not just about self-image -- it's also about communicating an image to other people. Prius owners know that their purchase of a hybrid isn't going to make the air they breathe any cleaner or solve U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and hey, it might even have some environmentally negative consequences for the world, if those big nasty hybrid batteries turn out to be hard to dispose of somewhere down the line. But at least in the sample taken by the U.C. Davis researchers, hybrid owners are hoping that by making a statement in favor of environmental responsibility, they can convince others to join the hybrid movement, and that somewhere down the line, real change will ensue.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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