Schulich professor studies a Hummer of a morality play

The marketing world has long been adept at looking into buyers’ psyches in search of ways to make products more appealing. The Mad Men of the ’60s knew that we buy things, not because we need them, but because we want to make a statement about who we are – or at least who we aspire to become.

Left: Hummer H2

In the 1950s, that meant buying a flashy car with fins and lots of chrome with nary a thought about the price of gas. It was about celebrating the return of happy days and participating in a booming postwar economy. Fast-forward 60 years and you find that, not only does your choice of vehicle say something about you, it can drag you into a debate over morality and get you vilified in public for threatening the future of our planet.

Ask any Hummer owner and they’ll tell you – but don’t expect them to complain or buy a Smart car anytime soon.

What does it all mean?

Markus Giesler, professor of marketing in the Schulich School of Business at York University, studies consumer culture and has recently tried to answer that question. In an article in the Journal of Consumer Research, Giesler and his co-authors detail what’s going on and how notions about being a consumer are changing in the 21st century.

Right: Markus Giesler

Giesler told Canadian Business magazine that he and a graduate student hit upon the idea of studying the Hummer story when they were discussing potential dissertation topics at a restaurant. When they left, they saw a Hummer pull up to park. “Within no time, five or six people gathered and yelled at the poor guy,” accusing him of ruining the environment and sanctioning warfare, says Giesler. “Here we had our topic.”

Written with co-authors Marius Luedicke, professor of marketing at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, and Craig Thompson, marketing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the article lays out a new theoretical framework for what the authors call consumer moralism, the process people engage in when they make a point of criticizing mainstream consumers for buying water in plastic bottles or gas-guzzling vehicles like the Hummer.

In analyzing what they call the “brand-mediated moral conflict” over Hummer ownership, Giesler and his colleagues have identified what they call a theoretical gap in the current understanding of this behaviour: it’s not only the “good guys” who are making a point here. The Hummer owners are equally intent on defending their values by putting themselves at the centre of a “morality play” of mythic proportions.

“The relevant point about the jeremiad against the Hummer is that it presents an opportunity for Hummer owners to assert their affirmative vision of the frontier spirit and to claim the moralistic mantle of being true Americans who are forward looking, freedom loving and high achieving,” write the authors.

At the same time, however, “consumers’ enemy narratives” can act as a cover for “their own brand-centric consumption practices.” In other words, it cuts both ways when you’re doing what the authors call “identity work”.

While some may think Hummer owners should react more sheepishly to the criticism, in fact, they take exactly the opposite tack. “Mainstream consumers reject activists’ evangelical overtures because they are reacting negatively to the paternalistic, constraining and overzealous connotations of these anti-consumption/anti-consumer formulations,” write the authors.

For more information on this research and for a copy of the journal article, visit Markus Giesler’s Web site.