Prius Purchases Could Reflect Conforming to a Local Social Norm

Prius Purchases and Conspicuous Conservation

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Jun 11, 2014    •    597 Views

Our Wednesday Environment Focus

Reporting that Prius was the top selling car in California, Bloomberg said the reason was tough emissions standards.

I wonder…

In a 2011 paper, economists Alison and Steven Sexton compared voting patterns and Prius ownership in Colorado and Washington (state). Their data (below) indicated that many of the Democratically dense zip codes had a higher proportion of Prius drivers.

For Colorado:

Prius ownership relates to the social norms to which you want to conform.

For Washington:

Prius ownership relates to the social norms to which you want to conform.

Comparing previous academic research to their own data, the Sextons concluded that when “green” is one of your social norms, sometimes looking “green” can be more important than being “green.” For that reason, people buy more Priuses than Honda Civic hybrids because the Prius’s design sends a more explicit hybrid signal.

Our bottom line: In The Theory of the Leisure Class (1889), economist Thorstein Veblen  (1857-1929) introduced us to “conspicuous consumption.” Referring to society’s more affluent, he said that extravagant buying behavior was a display of power, prestige and waste. With “conspicuous conservation,” we also have buying behavior sending a signal. However, its impact could be positive.

And finally, as I wondered above…since the Prius had a 9.3% market share of all 2013 California auto sales while the U.S. average was 3.82%, was conspicuous conservation a reason?

Please let us know your opinion in a comment.

Sources and more...Having looked at the Sexton study in an econlife 3 years ago, I wanted to update it with current Prius sales, present more of their data and share a version of a Southpark hybrid clip. I do also recommend econlib for more on Thorstein Veblen. An eccentric gentleman, his bio is interesting.

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