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Going Green To Be Seen

John Laurence - Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Toyota’s first attempt at selling the Prius hybrid in Europe wasn’t very successful... 

In fact, only 4 500 were sold between the years 2000 and 2003. Their advertising, which focused on selling the vehicle on its green credentials, fell surprisingly flat amongst the market.


Later research showed that people just weren’t willing to purchase the vehicle based on its environmental friendliness alone. Only when they started marketing the vehicle with more traditional marketing messages did sales take off.

This might seem strange - if you ask people why they purchased a Prius, most are going to tell you that it’s because they care about the future of the planet.

Douglas T. Kenrick and Vladas Griskevicius explain this phenomenon in their book, The Rational Animal. They ran an experiment where they provided people with a choice between two versions of a Honda Accord - one with a high level of luxury specification and another with lower specification but including an eco-friendly hybrid drivetrain.

To make it a little bit more interesting, they used a procedure called priming on some of their subjects. Priming is an unconscious phenomenon that causes the context of information to change the way we think or behave. Half of the people in the study were primed to be lead by a status motive – in other words they were influenced to have status become a more salient motivation for choice. They found that the people that were status-minded were much more likely to go for the hybrid version of the car than the higher specification version.

Intriguingly, a second study found that they were more likely to choose green only if they could show off their status to other people. In other words, they were “going green to be seen”. Driving a Toyota Prius could be likened to driving a billboard displaying how altruistic you are. 

Types of Motives

The study caused a bit of an outcry from drivers of hybrids who insisted that their motives for purchasing the vehicle were pure. The authors explain this behaviour by drawing a distinction between the surface level, or ‘proximate’ motives and the deeper ‘ultimate’ motives of the individual. When you ask people why they did something, they are much more likely to list the easily accessible proximate motive for the behavior; while the ultimate reason is often more deeply hidden from them. This is something that can be a common occurrence in marketing research, especially when it comes to questions that have a deeper social cause for the behaviour.

So, it’s always worth considering whether your advertising is addressing the ultimate evolutionary reasons behind the purchase of your product and if your research is able to dig out these implicit reasons for behaviour. Are those consumers buying the pickup truck because it’s the toughest vehicle out there; or because it’s the one that’s going to make them look like the toughest bloke out there?