Publication Detail

A Primer on Automobile Semiotics


Research Report

Hydrogen Pathways Program

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Suggested Citation:
Heffner, Reid R., Thomas S. Turrentine, Kenneth S. Kurani (2006) A Primer on Automobile Semiotics. Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-06-01

This report provides an introduction to semiotics: the study of symbols and symbol systems. In particular, the report focuses on the symbolic meaning of automobiles, and explores why this meaning is important to consumers. Section 1 defines what a symbol is, identifies the types of symbols, and discusses how consumer goods (such as automobiles) can serve as symbols. Section 2 investigates how individuals use the meaning in their automobiles to form and maintain their self-identities. Several theoretical approaches (including conspicuous consumption, self-congruity theory, and symbolic interactionism) are examined and contrasted with a more comprehensive approach, called products as self-creation, which is based on the theories of Anthony Giddens, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, and Grant McCracken. Section 3 explores how automobiles acquire their meaning, and how this meaning is transferred to the consumer. Finally, Section 4 examines how consumers evaluate the benefits from symbolic meaning relative to other types benefits vehicles provide, such as mobility. This report concludes that symbols matter in vehicle purchases, and that the adoption of new types of vehicles (including hybrid-electric and fuel-cell vehicles) depends partly on the symbolic value these vehicles deliver to buyers.