Don't hate Hummer owners: They're defending America's frontier lifestyle

Many green-minded Americans can think of lots of reasons to knock Hummer owners these days. For starters, there's all the gas their road hogs burn: about 13 miles per gallon in the city for the H3 with four-wheel drive. Then there's the sheer size of the things. At 4,700 pounds for some models, it's like a 2-bedroom, 2-bath condo on wheels.

The rage -- jealousy? -- is so profound among Hummer critics, there are now plenty of backlash websites to channel it all, with one displaying thousands of photographs of people with their middle fingers directed at Hummer vehicles.

But flip Hummers the bird all you want. Owners of the General Motors brand (for now at least) truly believe they're on a mission to defend America's frontier lifestyle against anti-American critics, finds a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research (yes, people do get paid to study this stuff).
The 20 Hummer drivers studied told researchers they consider driving a Hummer a "highly moral consumption choice." "Our Hummer drivers owners define themselves as active environmentalists as opposed to the passive tree huggers they deem to populate the anti-Hummer brigade," says the study by researchers at the University of Innsbruck, Austria, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and York University, Toronto.

The study goes on to state that Hummer owners believe they're the ones on the moral high ground, and not the latte-sipping critics who drive their Priuses to the airport, only so they can fly their private jets to their movie sets. Hummer owners "see their Hummer-facilitated excursions on trails and backwoods as spiritually and mentally revitalizing under-takings that viscerally re-immerse them in the munificent splendor of the nation and reaffirm their commitment to being good American citizens," the study adds.

Agree or not, the study simply seeks to understand the arguments Hummer-lovers use to "excuse over-consumption," as the study authors put it. To probe the study participants, an interviewer, a native European, presented himself as someone who was curious about what made the Hummer so popular in the United States. The 20 Hummer owners hailed from San Diego, San Francisco and Los Angeles and ranged in age from 32 to 59. Professions included a grandmother, fashion model, actor and farmer, among others.

What the researchers found in common was that Hummer drivers tend to bond on the notion they're under siege by Hummer-haters, making their choice of what they drive an expression of freedom and individuality. Indeed, the terms they use include "rugged individual" and "boundless frontier," reinforcing the idea that they're somehow connected with the mythology around the foundation of America, the study authors say.

The origins of the car, of course, provide its owners with a rich storyline. As the study authors note, one of the stars of the Gulf War was the Hummer's military ancestor known as the Humvee (high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicle), which was frequently shown in television coverage bumping proudly across the desert. The quick victory in Operation Desert Storm stoked the old notion that America is unique among nations, and ingrained the vehicle into America's consciousness.

Of course, the Hummer will have a different war to fight, now that General Motors is getting rid of the brand as the car company struggles to restructure. GM has announced plans to sell Hummer to China's Tengzhong and it's not exactly certain what the future holds.

For the time being, it looks like the brand will survive. If that's the case, the report now makes clear that leaving "you suck" Post-its on Hummer windshields is not going to change Hummer drivers' minds. In fact, it will probably just embolden them. "We have also shown that such de facto moral crusades against a consumer group provide a pretext for the targeted consumers to rhetorically exchange mythic roles and portray themselves as heroic defenders of the greater good and sacred values and ideals," the study says.
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