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Green Automobility Tesla Motors and the Symbolic Dimensions of “Green Cars” by Michele Bruzzi Centre for Cultural Policy Studies | PDF Free Download.
The Environmental Movement, Science, and the Market
A Case Study: Tesla Motors
The aim of this study is to investigate the symbolic dimensions of products commercialized as safe for the environment, and in particular of “green cars”, emerged since the late nineties on the technological platform provided by hybrid electric and “all-electric” engines.
In the course of this project, I will initially provide a general understanding of the dynamics through which a “green image” is attached to commodities, bringing into light some of the ideological assumptions sustaining these processes.
Theoretically, this paper departs from the premise that in Western societies commodities are consumed for reasons that exceed their utilitarian, functional benefits, and relate to symbolic values commodities bear within consumer culture.
Non-utilitarian meanings are attached to commodities through all sorts of social practices, and particularly through marketing, fashion, media coverage, and consumption habits. Such meanings serve consumers’ desire to articulate aspects of their individual and collective identities (McCracken, 1986, 1990).
The role of Western consumption patterns in environmental degradation is such that it appeared stimulating to investigate the symbolic maneuvers through which environmental credibility is associated with commercial products (Durning, 1992).
More specifically, given the major contribution of automobiles to environmental issues as resource depletion and climate change (Paterson, 2000, 258-260), a focus on the automotive market-place appeared potentially illuminating.
Considerations at both these levels will provide the argumentative basis for what constitutes a central objective of this dissertation, i.e. understanding which symbolisms are driving the success of the American electric vehicles manufacturer Tesla Motors.
To these aims, I have considered appropriate to set out the work reviewing what environmental concern represented in the historical period during which it reached a level of resonance that made it convenient for Western brands to associate their image to a green sensibility.
For green commodities to be as pervasive, it was evaluated, they must discursively draw on political assumptions different from those I took as a starting point considering “green consumption” as a sort of an oxymoron.
The first chapter will, therefore, focus on the period after the Second World War, during which an unprecedented growth in environmental concern found a variety of expressions.
Post-war environmental sensibilities are often related to older currents of thought nourishing notions about human-nature connectedness, and most notably to thinkers within the Romantic tradition (e.g. Guha, 1999, 11-13).
The peculiarities of post-war environmentalism, however, are relevant to our discussion and can be identified in the departure from Romantic individualism, in the orientation towards the future, and in a basis in eco-systemic science that fed pessimistic outlooks and demands for political change (Bennett, 2001, 21; Hay, 2002, 4-11).
Geographically, this excursus will mostly be limited to dynamics characterizing the U.S. society. A link is commonly assumed between rises in environmental sensibilities and processes of industrialization, and this aspect appeared to unequivocally support a focus on U.S. post-war society (Guha, 1999, 5-7).
Furthermore, the geographical origin of the case study rendered a focus on the U.S. particularly relevant. The chapter follows the progressive popularization of environmental arguments, giving particular attention to ideological shifts in leading strands of the movement.
At first, we will notice the dominance of radical perspectives, characterized by indictments of science and capitalist society, whereas, from the end of the seventies, more pragmatic approaches dominated the environmental debate.
This tendency, increasingly explicit in the course of the eighties, materialized in views on the environmental decline that regarded technological progress as a possible source of solutions, rather than inherently as a threat, and the market as a legitimate context for expressing political convictions.
A crucial role in this transition is identified in the ambiguous role science had within the late ’60s and early 70’s radical environmentalism.
This argument to some extent replicates what Maarten Hajer maintains, and his analysis of the emergence of “ecological modernization” perspectives is here referenced to interpret both the development of “techno-fix” approaches to environmental problems and the evolution of the environmental movement towards market-place activism (1995).
While the trajectory of post-war environmentalism in the U.S. can in some respects be easily associated with that characterizing Western European countries, other societies are characterized by different dynamics.
In particular, it is stressed how in the same period during which Western environmentalism undertook a process of de-radicalization, shifting its focus to global issues as ozone layer depletion, in developing countries it focused mainly on local problems, and frequently in radical fashions (Van Der Heijden, 1999, 199-210).
The second chapter understands consumer activism, in the form of boycotting of blameworthy brands and “buycotting” of meritorious ones, as a “semiotic action” through which political meanings are assigned to commodities.
Political meanings, it is argued, constitute the public dimension of commodities, and what traditional marketing practices erase from products (Micheletti, 2003, IX).
The chapter reviews manufacturers’ reactions to marketplace activism, providing an introduction to practices of “green marketing”.
In this context, two perspectives are introduced to understand these semiotic struggles between brands and consumers, one departing from Marxist insights connected to the Frankfurt School of social theory (Goldman and Papson, 1996), the other having bases in a poststructuralist view of the social world (Thompson, 2004).
The second part of the chapter follows the emergence of green cars in the context of a discussion of the symbolic meanings historically associated with automobiles.
The car, totemic object in Western consumer cultures, appears manifoldly intertwined in conceptual tensions among environmental decline, technological progress, and market mechanisms, and thus potentially very relevant to my discussion.
The third chapter consists of an investigation of the visual imagery deployed by Tesla Motors, an American electric car manufacturer, in the presentation of their Model S sedan on the company’s website. Semiotics has been considered an apt methodology to investigate the meanings Tesla attempts to convey on its EV.
The approach adopted is based on the Social Semiotics take on visual communication developed by Kress and van Leeuwen (1996).
Being Model S the only Tesla product currently available, and considered the company’s avoidance of traditional advertising techniques, it is argued that the company’s website plays a crucial role in articulating the brand’s identity.
The analysis suggests that while Tesla’s iconic CEO recurrently sponsors the environmental significance of the company’s activity, the analyzed visual texts barely leverage on the political dimensions of environmental concern.
This is instead absorbed in a discourse of technological progress that allows Tesla to recover significant elements of traditional automotive rhetoric.
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