Aggressive vs. Agreeable


In Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, author and evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller spends a lot of time discussion the “Big Five” personality traits, two of which are agreeableness and aggressiveness. These traits are important, says Miller, because individual consumers use their visible purchases to signal them to others. Indeed, Miller thinks much of what we purchase is about signaling others as to our fitness for mating and our social status. The difference between us and our evolutionary forebears is that we use products instead of letting our physique and robust health (or lack thereof) speak for themselves.

Aggressiveness and agreeableness are two traits in conflict, but each trait may be signaled by the same individual at different times. According to Miller, young adult males think a lot more about mating than parenting. In the initial phase of a relationship, they tend to signal low agreeableness and high aggressiveness by attempting to show social dominance, “manliness,” assertiveness, etc. These displays are intended to both attract the attention of a chosen female and deter rivals. But, as the relationship develops, Miller says, these same young males must begin to display high agreeableness to show their potential as long-term mates – thoughtfulness, gentleness to children and animals, concern for the environment and social justice, etc.

Product Implications

If you buy into Miller’s theory, a product aimed a the younger male demographic should signal one of these traits. Muscle cars and noisy motorcycles signal aggressiveness and dominance. So does pounding, bass-thumping rock music. Is it a coincidence that the brand that popularized shower products for male buyers is named Axe? Agreeableness might be signaled by driving a Toyota Prius or wearing a T-shirt with a socially-acceptable slogan, among many possibilities.

Mixed Signals

What will NOT work in the younger male demographic, says Miller, is a product that sends a mixed message. He cites the 2008 Chevy Tahoe Hybrid SUV as an example. While a massive SUV is definitely a signal of low agreeableness, the hybrid aspect would signal high agreeableness. The final message is a muddle: a truly eco-conscious individual wouldn’t drive an SUV that weighs nearly three tons, while a truly dominant individual would never spend an extra $14,000 to gain a pitiful 4 mpg boost in fuel economy.

When I wrote HUMMER: Split-Brain Branding, I didn’t use Miller’s evolutionary psychology language but highlighted the same kind of marketing failure. In promoting HUMMER with eco-oriented commercials, General Motors muddled the brand’s message. Environmentally-oriented consumers would never buy a HUMMER, even a hybrid if one existed, while the more likely buyers will find the non-aggressive ads off-putting. While I doubt if GM’s poorly executed eco-friendly ad campaign was the sole cause of the demise of the HUMMER brand, it certainly didn’t help.

There’s a lesson for marketers that goes beyond Miller’s aggressive/agreeable traits: products and brands must be true to their image, and trying to satisfy conflicting constituencies will likely end in failure.

  1. Molly says

    I would assume the people who are going to buy the Tahoe Hybrid are married couples – an “aggressive” husband who wants a big bad SUV, and an “agreeable” wife who won’t let her husband get a gas guzzler. The SUV hybrid is a compromise, so they’re both okay with it. In that case, is it necessarily bad to send a mixed message?

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Molly, I do think that a weirdly mixed product like the Tahoe Hybrid may appeal in a few situations. Your husband/wife scenario is one. Even a single individual may be conflicted, e.g., a person who wants a big SUV but feels guilty about owning a gas-guzzler. In both examples, the compromise product becomes a form of personal “greenwashing.”

      Overall, though, I think marketers are better off not compromising a brand or product. Sell big trucks to people who want big trucks, and truly economical vehicles to the eco-buyers.


  2. Brendon Clark says

    I agree Roger, and see another angle also. If I’m buying something because of the message it sends and the story it allows me to tell about myself, then I’m a marketer. I’m marketing myself and projecting a persona or image of who I want you to think I am.

    Naturally, I want to send a clear message about who I am and what I’m like, rather than mixed messages. If I’m young and macho, I don’t want a hybrid, I want the grunt etc. What’s critical is the next step after the message from the brand to me, which is the message I’m relaying from me to “my consumers”. I’m going to extend the message given to me and deliver it to my crowd.

    For me to convince my consumers that I am what I say I am, I need brand messages that are consistent, so that my consumers “buy in”to me.

  3. Tom McCann says

    Hi Roger, this is interesting stuff but in my view Millers’ theory is limited in its ability to explain all purchase behaviors. I can see ‘aggressiveness’ being an influence when my 18 yr old boy is shopping for a car, but what evolutionary drive influences my decision making processes when I’m shopping for office supplies. What part of openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability, or extraversion kicks in when I’m purchasing a stapler, a pen, a box of paper clips?

    Maybe I missed something when I skimmed Miller’s book so I am ok about being corrected but right now, I just don’t buy it as anything more than an interesting conversation starter.

    1. Roger Dooley says

      Tom, I don’t think Miller’s Five Factor approach can possibly explain all purchase behavior. (Nor, likely, can any single model.) At best, these factors are influencers on visible purchases, or purchase that will somehow reflect on the buyer’s self-image. A commodity product of low value (like paper clips) will likely be purchased based on non-emotional factors like convenience and price. I’d look for emotional factors to enter more into purchases like apparel, cars, beer, fragrances, luxury items of any kind, etc. I thought Spent kind of lost steam in the lengthy discussion of five (or six, counting intelligence) factors. I find the “fitness signal” concept to be very believable, while the five factor section seemed to be more trying to shoehorn complex behavior into a predetermined model.


  4. Paul Ward says

    What’s the latest on Doc Maarten’s rebranding effort to attract (Rorschach-like) both the liberal/creative market and the anarchist market? They used images of young men “tagging” a wall with graffiti, which I thought was a brilliant “creative destruction” move – not a conflict for either side. The young man on the site wore a cap that covered his head. This way, I believe, they could leave it to the imagination of the visitor whether the guy was a skinhead or not. (Skinheads adopted Docs after steel-toed boots were outlawed in UK.)

  5. Roger Dooley says

    Sounds like an interesting campaign, even if it does risk alienating some mainstream customers. I guess you’ve got to know your market and focus on your best buyer groups (unless you are striving for mass market dominance).


  6. Shawn Hybrid Tahoe enthusiast says

    It’s funny. A hybrid suv is one of the better options out there that will make a significant difference in the amount of fuel saved. In fact, it saves more fuel overall per year compared to a non hybrid Tahoe, than the differential between say, an accord and an accord hybrid.

    Like most hybrids, it’s particularly beneficial if you do a lot of short haul drives.

    I don’t see much of a market for the hybrid hummer though….

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