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Classroom Born Thesis

May 2, 2016

This semester, a student in Professor Mark Pedelty’s class Environmental Communication took his senior project beyond the course’s lesson plan. Sam Petrov was so inspired by the course that he decided to continue exploring environmental communication in his honors thesis. He began by looking at Apple and corporate social responsibility, but later turned his focus toward electric cars.

“I chose to focus on the up-and-coming electric car market because of my infatuation with Tesla,” Petrov explained. He decided to delve deeper into the cultural distinctions between electric car companies and the role these companies take on with environmentally-conscious consumers. Examining two major car brands, Nissan and Tesla, Petrov uncovered different communication strategies used by the two companies to allure potential buyers. Specifically, Petrov looks deeper into conspicuous conservation, or the idea of engaging in eco-friendly activities leading to higher social status, and how the concept is manifested within different social classes of consumers.

Nissan’s marketing team aims its communication and advertising strategies toward middle class consumers who value being environmentally conscious. For example, polar bears and images of melting ice are used frequently in Nissan’s advertisements, since the two have become iconic images, or as Petrov states, “trite symbols for an environment that requires quick salvation.” Consumers of Nissan’s electric cars can portray an image of being heroic, polar bear-saving activists. Petrov argues that Nissan’s communication strategies send a message about everyone doing one’s own part to protect and conserve the environment.

On the contrary, Petrov shines light on Tesla’s alleged absence of a marketing department. He explains how Tesla openly states the company finds it unnecessary to employ persuasive communication strategies to its consumers. Tesla’s target market revolves around upper class consumers, so the approach to selling eco-friendly vehicles to potential buyers is different than Nissan’s. Instead of employing cliché images of polar bears, Tesla attempts to brand itself as a “refined” electric car seller. Tesla sells eco-friendly vehicles targeted at the upper and upper-middle classes, so they forgo the use of different sets of cultural symbols. These ideological symbols include sinuous roads that organically work harmoniously with the land, away from industrialized suburbia. Tesla and Nissan respectively use their sets of symbols based on cultural distinctions to appeal to their consumer target markets.

Petrov hopes his thesis draws out often missed messages to consumers. He wants to continue with this research in the future, fostered by earnest connections with Department of Communication Studies faculty members. He says the department helped him grow as both a communicator and a conscientious consumer. More so, he learned how consumer targeted communication strategies can make a novel product, like the electric car, appealing to different markets and potentially transform the entire vehicle industry.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.