Driving Passions: Vehicles and Consumer Culture

Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers University
[ to cite ]:
Michael R. Solomon (1992) ,"Driving Passions: Vehicles and Consumer Culture", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, eds. John F. Sherry, Jr. and Brian Sternthal, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 166-168.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 19, 1992      Pages 166-168


Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers University


Few consumer researchers would dispute the contention that automobiles and other vehicles have evolved into some of the most significant material objects in popular culture. This special session focuses on some of the relationships between vehicles, consumers, and popular culture from a variety of perspectives.


Cars and other vehicles both shape and reflect consumer behavior processes, especially because they often serve as an important extension of the self and as a mediator of self-concept (cf. Belk 1988; Flink 1988; Marsh and Collett 1986; Solomon 1983):

- They have significantly influenced demographic patterns (e.g., by providing the catalyst for suburban development)

- They have affected social relationships (e.g., by facilitating changes in sexual mores via drive-in movies, "lovers lanes," etc.)

- They are connected to expressions of cultural values (e.g., individualism, power, freedom, materialism)

- They are canvases upon which developments in design and esthetics are created (e.g., as representations of modernity)

- They provide props for the enactment of such cultural structures as myths and rituals (e.g., the rite of passage associated with the granting of a driver's license to an adolescent).

Relationship to Prior Work

Recognition of the pivotal role played by vehicles in consumer culture is not new. Indeed, Birdwell's (1964) research comparing the self-concepts of Pontiac and Volkswagen owners was one of the first self-product image congruence studies. Cars also figured prominently in classic motivational research analyses conducted by Ernest Dichter, Pierre Martineau, Sidney Levy, and others. Russell Belk's development of the extended self construct explicitly includes the auto in its discussion of the investment of self in objects (Belk 1988).

Despite the prominence of vehicles and ancillary products in advertising and other aspects of consumer culture, surprisingly little research has focused specifically upon artifacts linked to personal transportation. In recent years, ACR presentations and other consumer behavior literature have witnessed an upsurge of interest in such expressive products as housing and home decoration (e.g., Claiborne and Ozanne 1990; Kron 1983), cosmetics and other forms of body modification (e.g., Schouten 1991), and clothing (e.g., Solomon 1986). This recognition of the communicative properties of products has not been paralleled by empirical or ethnographic work on consumer vehicles: "living rooms on wheels."

This session aims to redress this omission by providing four different perspectives on consumers' relationships with vehicles. Taking a symbolic/ linguistic perspective, Barbara Stern and Michael Solomon approach the vehicle as a medium for interpersonal communication. They present research on car ornamentation, with a specific focus on the messages transmitted by consumers' choices of bumper stickers and other semantic media as they personalize their vehicles. John Schouten and James McAlexander explore in depth the consumption subculture composed of Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners, and also assess the interactions of owners with the company itself. Bruce Vanden Bergh examines literary and cultural influences on advertising creatives, with particular reference to Doyle Dane Bernbach's classic Volkswagen Beetle campaign. Finally, David Banik discusses research done for Amoco gasoline by the DMB&B advertising agency on consumers' relationships with their cars.




Barbara B. Stern, Rutgers University

Michael R. Solomon, Rutgers University

We approach the car as a highly visible communications medium that permits consumers to make a wide range of statements about themselves and the world around them. This paper presents research on the rich variety of car ornamentation, with a specific focus on the messages transmitted by consumers via bumper stickers and other semantic media. The research program aims to better understand the dynamics of cars as social or personal canvasses by which expressions of the self are signified within the context of mass culture.

Bumper stickers represent a unique "media" category in that they convey in words direct consumer statements -- self-proclamations, affiliation with kinship groups, directives to others, epithets, boasts, and so forth. Furthermore, the choice of these statements (or whether to display any at all) is highly voluntary, thus affording insight into consumers' volition and commitment to the messages. As such, these media afford the opportunity to study consumer communication about the self (personal identity) and about outreach to others (social identity) in terms of verbal artifacts freely chosen. The overt and public nature of these verbal statements renders them particularly accessible to systematic empirical analysis.



Bruce G. Vanden Bergh, Michigan State University

This presentation makes the case that the creative approach employed in the well-known Volkswagen Beetle campaign did not come out of the air as suggested by advertising great David Ogilvy, but instead had as its foundation fairly specific cultural and literary origins. The primary strategy of the campaign was to position the Beetle as an automotive "Little Man" who could not (and did not want to) live up to the superficial styling and advertising offered by the major American car manufacturers. Instead, the strategy was to offer the consumer an honest vehicle that could deliver on its rather understated promises.

The use of the little-man persona to criticize social inequities and myths is not entirely new, for it can be traced to the use of the clown in such works as William Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. This little-man character, much like a hero, is an archetypical character who is often conjured up to confront forces larger than the individual. And, this approach is often executed in a humorous vein in order to leave the audience hopeful of reconciliation at some future point in time.

The presentation analyzes eleven advertisements from the Volkswagen Beetle campaign to demonstrate how the little-man approach has been executed over time. Finally, the presentation addresses some of the practical considerations that made the campaign a success. These include the uniqueness of the Doyle Dane Bernbach agency, the forthrightness of the client, the influence of The New Yorker, and the social context provided by the iconoclasm of the 1960s.



John W. Schouten, University of Portland

James H. McAlexander, Oregon State University

Past studies of subcultural consumption patterns have focused on ethnic or other ascribed subcultures, which, despite some general commonalities, often display such diversity of consumer preferences as to limit severely their potential as market segments. This research looks instead to subcultures that self-select on the basis of shared consumption interests (cf. Donnelly and Young 1988).

The study focuses on the behaviors, values, structures, and market importance of one such consumer subculture - namely, Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners. Data are drawn from a wide variety of sources including depth interviews with Harley owners; participant and non-participant observation at such venues as rides, rallies, swap-meets, HOG meetings and other club gatherings; archival sources such as ethnographies of motorcycle gangs, biker fiction and poetry, and biker magazines; and depth interviews with key members of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company in such areas as product design, marketing strategy, advertising, and retail sales.

The presentation discusses the structure and ethos of a complex consumption subculture and its interaction with the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. It offers fresh perspectives of such traditional marketing themes as brand loyalty, product positioning, opinion leadership, and new-product development. Furthermore, new themes for marketing scholarship emerge from a focus on marketers and subcultural groups as co-creators of product symbolism and subcultural identity.



Douglas Banik, DMB&B Chicago

Californians wear their cars the way Midwesterners wear class rings and Easterners wear school ties. Many spend more per month on their car than they do for housing. As one Californian told me, "I can live in my car, but I can't drive my house."

Aberrant behavior? Maybe. But as with much that we associate with the West Coast, attitudes toward cars are simply more obvious, more extreme, and a bit ahead of attitudes in the rest of the country. Just a little bit of historical perspective reveals that in many ways the car defines much of what is American. It is symbolic of our affluence, our technical leadership, our commitment to freedom and individualism. And what is true for our society is largely true for each of us as individual members of that society. We buy cars that fit with our self-image, that say something about us, that say something to us.

As marketers of gasoline, we've had to be very sensitive to the relationship of the motorist and his or her car. For example, many car owners anthropomorphize their cars. They describe them as "sexy, cute, muscular, quick, hot, powerful, macho." Some give their cars names. Others claim they run better after they've been washed. And many tell us their car "knows" whether it's getting the best gasoline. We've built a whole campaign around that one. These motorists wash their cars more frequently, change the oil more often, accessorize and customize their cars, drive more miles, and enjoy their cars more than do other motorists.

Other segments of motorists have quite different relations with their cars. For example, some consumers see their vehicles as functional, precision machines. They're willing to pay for good quality gasoline, but not for octane they don't need. Others are purely utilitarian: They rarely wash their cars, never wax them, and forget to change the oil.

The key point is that for all of these motorists their cars say something about them: about their success and achievement, their intelligence and practicality, or about their preferences for a sedentary lifestyle. This presentation discusses research on these motorist self-statements, and demonstrates how the insights derived from our work for Amoco have been translated into actual advertising executions.


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