Can bad drivers sell cars?

Recently I found myself driving on the M25 whilst advising my passenger, a new driver, about motorway driving. I reflected on one piece of advice later. I told her to keep an eye on the rear view mirror particularly to watch out for a certain brand of high spec car. That kind of car, I warned, will drive on your bumper, weave in and out of traffic and rarely indicate.

I wondered if there was any ‘science’ to support my prejudice and then found a 2012 paper written by the psychology departments of the University of California, Berkeley.

They looked at whether upper class individuals were more likely to break the law while driving compared to lower class individuals. This was part of a larger study and their paper is called “Higher Social Class Predicts Increased Unethical Behaviour”. Looking at the behaviour of drivers was a particularly good way of approaching the issue because, as they say, “vehicles are reliable indicators of a person’s social rank and wealth” and there are many opportunities to break the law when driving.

Here’s how they describe the two experiments they conducted.

“Our first two studies were naturalistic field studies, and examined whether upper-class individuals behave more unethically than lower-class individuals while driving. In study 1, we investigated whether upper-class drivers were more likely to cut off other vehicles at a busy four-way intersection with stop signs on all sides. As vehicles are reliable indicators of a person’s social rank and wealth, we used observers’ codes of vehicle status (make, age, and appearance) to index drivers’ social class. Observers stood near the intersection, coded the status of approaching vehicles, and recorded whether the driver cut off other vehicles by crossing the intersection before waiting their turn, a behavior that defies the California Vehicle Code. In the present study, 12.4% of drivers cut in front of other vehicles. A binary logistic regression indicated that upper-class drivers were the most likely to cut off other vehicles at the intersection, even when controlling for time of day, driver’s perceived sex and age, and amount of traffic”.

In study 2, we tested whether upper-class drivers are more likely to cut off pedestrians at a crosswalk. An observer positioned him- or herself out of plain sight at a marked crosswalk, coded the status of a vehicle, and recorded whether the driver cut off a pedestrian (a confederate of the study) attempting to cross the intersection. Cutting off a pedestrian violates California Vehicle Code. In this study, 34.9% of drivers failed to yield to the pedestrian. A binary logistic regression with time of day, driver’s perceived age and sex, and confederate sex entered as covariates indicated that upper-class drivers were significantly more likely to drive through the crosswalk without yielding to the waiting pedestrian”.

The writers of the report concluded, from these and five other experiments, that “individuals from upper-class backgrounds behaved more unethically in both naturalistic and laboratory settings”.

These are the reasons they gave:

• The availability of resources to deal with the downstream costs of unethical behavior
• Feelings of entitlement
• A reduced concern for others’ evaluations
• Relative independence from others and increased privacy in their professions may provide fewer structural constraints and decreased perceptions of risk associated with committing unethical acts. In essence, being untouchable.
• Increased goal-focus

So, there is some proof. Next time you get cut up or tailgated blame the driver’s sense of entitlement, unconcern, inconsequence, being untouchable and the measures by which they judge personal success. Perhaps you can think up a suitable hand gesture to encapsulate all that when they pull out without indicating.

Or, you might think of a great ad.

It all reminds me of a brilliant ad for Audi that appeared in 1994 and captured the mood of a nation at a time when Britain was recovering from recession. Financiers, who had been celebrated as Yuppies, were starting to be seen as people with, funnily enough, an over-developed sense of entitlement, unconcern, inconsequence, being untouchable and goal focus. A bit like now, then.

BBH produced an Audi ad in which a Yuppie drives an Audi aggressively and rudely around London. Shots of the drive are interspersed with scenes from his everyday, testosterone fuelled life. During his drive he says that the car you drive says a lot about the person you are.

The ‘twist’ is that the drive is a test drive. The Yuppie ends up rejecting the Audi (“not really my style”), throwing the keys back to a far more relaxed looking Audi salesman. The ad tells me that Audi is not the brand I should be wary of when looking in my rear view mirror. Audi is self aware and in on the joke.

Watching it again, twenty years later, is like watching The Wolf of Wall Street. The fashions and the technologies have retro chic. Perhaps Audi should have resurrected it (or something like it) as cinema advertising to accompany the film. Back in 1994 it was one of the most talked about ads. In 2014 that word of mouth effect would be magnified by social media. You can see it here.

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