Are Toyota Prius drivers wankers?

The unique body shape of the Toyota Prius

Educated elites often show distaste for the sort of conspicuous consumption exemplified by McMansions, but it seems almost everyone likes to show off, even greenies.

Two US researchers, Steven Sexton and Alison Sexton (they’re twins), have coined the term “conspicuous conservation” to describe people who spend up big to signal their green status. The standard conventions of conspicuous consumption still apply – like German cars and appliances – but now esteem can also be bought through demonstrations of austerity.

The authors set out the issue in this paper, Conspicuous Conservation: The Prius Effect and Willingness to Pay for Environmental Bona Fides:

Amid heightened concern about environmental damage and global climate change, costly private contributions to environmental protection increasingly confer status once afforded only through ostentatious displays of wastefulness. Consumers may, therefore, undertake costly actions in order to signal their type as environmentally friendly or “green.” The status conferred upon demonstration of environmental friendliness is sufficiently prized that homeowners are known to install solar panels on the shaded sides of houses so that their costly investments are visible from the street.

They examine the sorts of people who buy hybrid cars in Washington (State) and Colorado, focussing on areas with a green demographic where sales of hybrid cars are high and where ‘signalling’ green credentials therefore ought to work. They attempt to isolate the “green halo” effect by comparing sales of the market-leading Toyota Prius – which has a distinctive and unique body shape – against those of comparable hybrids like the Honda Civic. Like all of the other 23 hybrid models on the US market (excepting the Prius), the Civic is virtually indistinguishable from the bigger-selling petrol powered variants of the same car. It is only identified by a small badge and hence, unlike the Prius, fails to signal its environmental credentials.

Anyone who’s watched Larry David tootling around LA in his Prius with uncurbed enthusiasm will get the picture – “we’re Prius drivers….we’re a special breed”. As Dan Becker, the head of the global warming program at the Sierra Club says, “the Prius allowed you to make a green statement with a car for the first time ever”.

The authors cite a market research company’s finding that 57% of Prius buyers say their main reason for choosing the Prius is because “it makes a statement about me”. They refer to another study where most of the individuals interviewed had only a basic understanding of environmental issues or the ecological benefits of hybrid cars but purchased “a symbol they could incorporate into a narrative of who they are or who they wish to be”.

The authors conclude that the conspicuous conservation effect accounts on average for 33% of the Prius’s market share in Colorado and 10% in Washington. No wonder it’s come to be known as the Toyota Pious.

This signalling effect is not a bad thing. As I’ve pointed out before, status-seeking is part of being human. While conspicuous consumption is associated with wastefulness – bling – conspicuous conservation may improve social welfare. To some extent, the writers argue, private actions can substitute for government policies and thereby yield social-welfare-improving environmental outcomes in the presence of market failures that under-value environmental amenities. In other words, it’s better to be an environmentally responsible wanker than a garden variety wanker.

The risk however is the desire to be ostentatious might crowd-out more efficient actions. For example, the authors caution that home owners might be prone to “over-invest in solar panels and under-invest in other green home improvements, like additional insulation and window caulking, because the former are conspicuous and the latter are not”. We already have ample evidence that government’s are vulnerable to glamorous incentives e.g. the ludicrously high solar feed-in tariffs offered by the former NSW Government. There’s also the possibility of the rebound effect, where owners of more efficient cars feel they have licence to drive more kilometres, thereby undermining the social benefits of their vehicle choice.

The authors suggest that subsidies for improved environmental outcomes should be targeted to concealed or inconspicuous conservation measures, such as home insulation, energy-efficient heating and cooling, and window stripping. They also suggest that subsidies for conspicuous measures might eventually undermine their value as status signals, in effect killing the golden goose.

Perhaps there’s scope to use signalling theory to actually extract money from green households. By way of example, my household has voluntarily paid a premium for green power for some years. Apart from the esteem I’ve now gained by mentioning it here, this has always been our “hidden secret”. If however the power companies were to devise a way to make such altruism visible – to make it competitive altruism – they might be able to get more of my neighbours and friends to pay this premium.

Maybe a prominent green-coloured band on the overhead power wires leading into the houses of green power users would be a suitable nudge. That’s only going to work in older areas where power isn’t underground and it won’t work for apartments, but there could still be a big market. Maybe VicRoads could sell a special green number plate for super fuel-efficient cars so that drivers of otherwise inconspicuous hybrid Honda Civics and Toyota Camrys could advertise their worthiness.

As I said, I don’t have any issue with people displaying their green credentials publicly. It’s human nature and my hunch is most green-oriented people do it (but I have another hunch they don’t like to own up to it). They’re not wankers. I do think it’s a bit rich however if those same people condemn suburbanites for vulgar status-seeking in the manner that this writer does. There might be a case for condemning McMansions for their environmental performance, but it seems hypocritical to condemn them for advertising status.

I’m not surprised that Honda in Australia reckons its research shows hybrid Civic buyers don’t necessarily want their car to say “look at me, I’m an environmentalist”. That’s presumably one reason why they bought the Civic. Fact is though, Prius sales slaughter the Civic hybrid’s.

26 Comments on “Are Toyota Prius drivers wankers?”

  1. Alexander says:

    Don’t hybrids already have to have a green diamond a la the red LPG tags on their plates? (I’m informed this is for safety reasons—there’s high-voltage lines running through those cars that SES personel need to know about before they start cutting crash victims out.) Just coloring the numberplate green wouldn’t necessarily be helpful considering the vast range of color combinations already allowed. The color-coded diamonds are distinctive because of their uniqueness.

    Maybe you need to be a geek to even notice them in the first place, but a nice subtle advertising campaign should fix that.

  2. Paul says:

    Hi allen enjoying your blog just found it. The bbq stopper when talking about personal green credentials is international flights. Most prius drivers with solar panels and low food miles will be making a couple or more international flights a year which blows their carbon footprint out way over most outer suburban mc mansion owners. The flight kms of the inner city must be huge. Cheers

    • Alexander says:

      Is that true? I’ve heard it enough—but seen no real stats to back it up. It sounds believable, but maybe people buying that Prius to try and make up for their flights. The real question is, how many people who care about the environment etc, take voluntary flights? (and don’t realise the carbon cost of the flight). Measuring it just by Prius-ownership will give you misleading figures.

      Also, just assuming everyone who lives in the inner suburbs/city and wants good public transport, does that and wants that primarily because of the environment may well be false. They might like that lifestyle, and then try and argue for it in popular (environmental) terms instead of just saying “Spend more money on what I want” (or in addition to observing the human cost, which is above and beyond the simple road toll in my view). It’s how things are meant to work in a democracy with grants voters the freedom to say what they want.

  3. Sam says:

    The interesting case is the person who uses a novated lease to obtain a prius and take advantage of the generous FBT treatment only to be caught needing to do extra kilometres to meet the threshold. Why not buy a Corolla and drive fewer kilometres? It would work out cheaper and better for the environment.

    The other it-doesn’t-make-sense-to-own-a-Prius group are people in Canberra. There is no congestion, so very little chance to recharge the battery and a lot of long distance trips to Sydney etc which end up using more fuel.

    • I’ve been driving a first generation Civic Hybrid for a while and whilst I understand that the Civics and Prius’ work a bit differently I think the charging works much the same.

      They recharge any time you slow down, or even head down hills, etc. No need for congestion to charge the battery. On a trip to Bendigo from Melbourne travelling on the freeway it still uses less fuel than another car of it’s size and the battery stays mainly charged. In fact my main criticism of the Civic is that I’ve never actually seen the battery under 50% which to me means it’s charging too often, and not assisting enough.

      However the argument that hybrids only save fuel in city environments is false, they provide their biggest savings in congested environments, but they certainly don’t consume more fuel on a freeway, especially if there are hills.

      • Also the car is not mine. It’s on a loan while a family member lives overseas for a while.

        I’m the sort of enviro-wanker that refuses to buy a car, then hypocritically jumps at the opportunity to borrow one when the opportunity arises.

        The enviro-wanker credential that really grates me are the “One Less Car” stickers you see on so many people’s bikes. Mainly because everyone I know that has one either owns a car anyway, or doesn’t have a licence in the first place and relies heavily on lifts from people that do! I also believe these stickers are really a matter of preaching to the converted and will do absolutely nothing to convince car drivers that they in fact should get a bike and not drive, and rather probably exacerbate the already high-tensions between bike riders and car drivers in Melbourne.

        A more effective sticker may be “Don’t you hate being stuck in congestion?”.

  4. Paul says:

    Hi Alexander, The carbon cost on one return economy flight to London is almost 9 T CO2. (actual emissions 3 mt x 2.8 due to forcing effect of emissions into high altitude). A family trip of 4 equates to 36 t Co2. An efficient household including 100% renewable power and reasonable car use is about 12 t CO2. So that one family trip is 3-4 years worth of CO2-crazy. The science is saying we need to get to less than 1 t CO2 PER YEAR. All my latte sipping jet setting friends go very quiet when you give them the facts.

    • Brad Hall says:

      Hey, keep lattes out of this 😉

    • RED says:

      And who can blame them for doing so when you spoil their lattes with polemic? 😉

    • Oz says:

      Maybe expression of status could be encouraged by awarding gold encased NiMH batteries to be worn on head gear as trend setter award points for people to indicate they have reached the “Conspicuous Conservation” target of 1 tonne of CO2 pp/pa.

  5. johnsonmike says:

    Ha! The actual wankers drive a Pajero — which is Spanish for wanker. And no, that is not an urban myth.

    I’ve called a Prius a Pious since I saw the hilarious 2006 South Park episode “Smug Alert.”

  6. Simon says:

    yes, Prius drivers are wankers. Car’s primary sin is poor space efficiency, not porr fuel efficiency. In other words, they take up too much space, both when being driven and when stored, thus creating the distance that neccesitates further car use.

    There is no such thing as a green car, even if ran on 100% green energy.

  7. Chloe says:

    I would buy a Hybrid car if it saved me money on petrol, but at the moment the actual costs of buying the car when compared to the non-hybrid equivalent outways any savings I might have on petrol. Plus, they depreciate more quickly as the technology of new models is constantly improving. Ditto with “green” energy – I would buy it if it were cheaper. I guess I’m one of those “opportunistic environmentalists”. I would bet there are a lot more of us around than the ostentatious ‘look at how green I am’ environmentalists. I agree that there’s nothing wrong with making a statement about who you are – we all do it one way or another. But if we really want better environmental outcomes, the ‘badge of honour’ aproach would not be as effective as the ‘what’s in it for me’ approach.

  8. Aussie83 says:

    If they wanted to be green they should buy an old banger thats is semi reliable and run around in that. considering the embodied energy in a car and the waste when a car comes to the end of its life in scrapping it and melting down. I suspect you would have to drive a pius for a damn long time to ofset the energy taken to build one.

    Maybe buy an old reliable v8 and put it on lpg.

    • I’ve had this conversation a couple of times and tend to disagree. Whilst its true that embodied energy is an important factor the vast majority of a cars “energy total” comes from running the car. Apparently about 70-90% on average.

      Also if you genuinely need to buy a new car then buying a new car isn’t necessarily going to necessarily create a higher embodied amount of energy. What matters is the cars lifespan. Who owns the car in that lifespan is irrelevant.

      Source: (although this article doesn’t mention the studies it refers to)

      Secondly, an old reliable V8 converted to LPG is most likely still going to be far more environmentally harmful than a smaller car running petrol. LPG is apparently about 13% “cleaner” than petrol. Most V8s and especially old V8s are hungry beasts and you can find cars that will use far less than 87% of their total fuel use.

  9. wilful says:

    I would hate to be seen to be agreeing with Jeremy Clarkson on climate change (he’s generally entirely wrong), but he has a point about current hybrids. The batteries of a hybrid really do suck, the lifecycle analysis of a hybrid with a large battery stack is pretty awful, it really is debateable whetehr you shold be driving one versus a large commodore.

    meanwhile, you can get better fuel economy from a ford focus or a VW Golf. So people buying Toyota Prii really are in it only for the status.

    Which I only have a limited problem with, I’d prefer this sort of status purchasing than other sorts.

    • Julian says:

      I’m sorry, but this is one of those urban myths that has little basis in reality.

      Most the manufacturers give an 8+ year on the battery. In some US states they’re providing 15 year warranties. That sounds like it’s partially political pressure to do so, but the manufacturers aren’t going to agree if they think they’ll be replacing too many in that time.

      A lot of early generation Hybrids have been on the market for about 10 years now. Their batteries are holding up fine. Here’s a consumer report testing a 10 year old Prius with their results of the same model, 10 years before. The result: the battery performs almost identically as it did 330,000kms earlier (rounded from the 208,000miles figure quoted in the article). A final piece of analytical evidence, the Civic I’m driving is about 10 years old. The batter still holds a charge and still works almost identically.

      Another point, the battery packs don’t cost the earth to replace. $3,000 or so, sure it’s expensive, but it’s comparable to many other components of cars that have similar lifetimes. On top of this, the batteries are lithium based. Which is a relatively easy type of battery to recycle.

      • Alan Davies says:

        Julian, you sure about the Civic? My understanding is the Honda Civic Hybrid was introduced in Australia in 2007. There was a pretty impractical two door Honda Insight Hybrid sold in Australia circa ten years ago but not sofar as I’m aware a Civic Hybrid.

      • wilful says:

        Julian, you’ve missed my point. I’m not talking about financial cost of batteries, I’m talking about environmental impact of them. When you can get just as efficient and comfortable cars without being hybrids.

        A biodiesel (recycled oil) Peugot 308 or Golf Bluemotion or Ford Fiesta econetic are all examples of cars that are naturally more efficient than any hybrid, and do not have the embedded lifecycle cost of making and disposing of large battery packs..

        • I didn’t miss your point at all, the cost was only a minor point of what I mentioned, as cost is always a factor when considering sustainability. Nothing is sustainable if only the rich can afford to ‘do the right thing’.

          My main points were:

          The batteries last a long time without needing to be replaced
          The batteries can be recycled

  10. Tim says:

    As a Prius driver I am aware that there is an element of ‘Conspicuous consumption’ involved with a lot of the buyers of the car. Toyota has marketed the car as green friendly making it a big targeted by self styled ‘anti-greenie’ types so I am quite weary about research papers like this. Especially after the Prius versus Hummer fiasco (Warning: PDF file).

    Yes it is not the most fuel efficient car, or the cheapest. But the actual reason for it’s success is that it is a an excellently made car which has the fuel efficiency of a small car with the interior space of a medium sized car.

    I find the market research questions about ‘it makes a statement about me’ interesting. It reminds me of the market research reported by Keith Bradsher’s ‘High and Mighty: Suvs–The World’s Most Dangerous Vehicles and How They Got That Way’. It reports that the car makers own research that SUV buyers as:

    “insecure and vain. They are frequently nervous about their marriages and uncomfortable about parenthood. They often lack confidence in their driving skills. Above all, they are apt to be self-centered and self-absorbed, with little interest in their neighbors and communities”.

    As I don’t have the book on hand the source for this quote is from this review

  11. Alexander says:

    Hey Paul, sorry for the late reply. I understand those statistics, but that’s not what I’m talking about, or what my question is. I was asking whether people buy the Prius because they know they sin and try to do what they can to make up for it, or whether people buy the Prius because they think it makes them good. I am not asking for environmental statistics, but surveys of motivational and especially insight.

  12. Lik says:

    Toyota certainly knows how to sells products. They OWN the global hybrid market (Prius, Camry, RX450h etc) but they’re also one of the biggest SUV makers.

    In Australia Toyota is the SUV king.

    They’re a big tent company; progressive wankers and (what’s the opposite) are all buying Toyotas.

  13. […] or drive a Prius (I’ve written about status a number of times before – e.g. here, here, here and […]

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