I was reading an op-ed article the other day which brought up the economic concept of "positional goods." As the author explained:
A positional good is a good that people acquire to signalise where they stand in a social hierarchy; it is acquired in order to set oneself apart from others. Positional goods therefore have a peculiar property: the utility their consumers derive from them is inversely related to the number of people who can access them.
Positionality is not a property of the good itself, it is a matter of the consumer’s motivations. I may buy an exquisite variety of wine because I genuinely enjoy the taste, or acquire a degree from a reputable university because I genuinely appreciate what that university has to offer. But my motivation could also be to set myself apart from others, to present myself as more sophisticated or smarter....
If I value those goods for their intrinsic qualities, their increasing popularity will not trouble me at all....But if you see me moaning that the winemakers/the university have ‘sold out’, if you see me whinging about those ignoramuses who do not deserve the product because they (unlike me, of course) do not really appreciate it, you can safely conclude that for me, this good is a positional good. (Or was, before everybody else discovered it.)
So what has this got to do with cars? It's obvious that certain cars are pitched to the consumer as positional goods. One example is the 1970s "revival-era" Stutz: between 25 and 50 or so were sold in each year during the peak of its production. Like the seats at the cool kids' table in the junior high cafeteria, there were only so many to go around, so getting one put you in an exclusive club.
There's another phenomenon that seems to attach to particular cars: whether intended by their owners as "positional goods" or not, they become cultural markers for a particular (stereotyped) subculture. The 3-series BMW was a cultural marker for yuppies in the 1980s; the VW Type 2 Microbus was the same thing for hippies and assorted Bohemians in the 1960s and '70s; Subarus have been strongly associated with the "granola" lifestyle for several decades.
Please share your thoughts on this, or any other automotive topic, in the comments box below.
--Cookie the Dog's Owner
The photo of several textbook examples of positional goods--polo ponies, a fur coat, and a Stutz D'Italia--came from Peter Madle's Stutz history website.