Marketing Messes With Your Head
A new study out today in PNAS confirms what we always suspected was true. The higher the price you pay for a product, the greater your subjective experience of pleasure in the product. For a tightwad like me, that's a no brainer. Of course people think that expensive stuff is better. Most of the time, I feel a smug satisfaction knowing that I can enjoy the same quality for a fraction of the price, or free. But here's the kicker. That pleasure experience is real, according to Caltech researchers Hilke Plassmann, John O'Doherty, Baba Shiv, and Antonio Rangel. At first I felt that this was clearly the devil's work, but as I was polishing the cobalt blue enamel on my Aga range this morning, I had a change of heart. Maybe, sometimes, pleasure is worth the price we pay for it.
Take for example that Russian caviar I was served at an intimate New Year's soiree by a friend. Sure, I knew that sturgeon caviar from Russia was not something you could find at Kroger for $1/can. But I almost choked when, halfway through the appetizers, the hostess mentioned that the one-pound tin had cost $1000. My first impulse was to protest that this was too much to spend entertaining our humble selves. But the can was already open, and half of it in my stomach. Instead, I did what any reasonable person would. I ate more! Did it taste better after that little revelation? Oh, God, yes.
And consider that Aga range I mentioned above. It retails for over $5000. (Their higher end products cost much, much more.) Even though we've been unfailingly thrifty about most of our purchases, we settled on the Aga because we wanted a quality professional range, and because it was cute. (No, really, it is extremely cute.) Now, it turns out that only one of the seven functions on the multifunction oven works properly, and that apparently you have to wait upwards of two months for parts to be delivered. (Indeed, it is the Jaguar of ovens.) I could have had better function in a $600 range from my neighborhood appliance superstore. In fact, I said as much to the customer service representative, in emphatic tones, when I reported that the heating element in the boiler was literally cold to the touch after ten minutes of “preheating.” It speaks to the degree of mutual self-delusionment of the premium product marketing phenomenon that he attempted to convince me that it was taking an hour to heat up because it was better than other ranges. And that I almost believed him. But do I love that hunk of metal? I sure do, yep.
Or how about that $1500 quality purebred mastiff puppy I purchased last year? Just fifty percent more than a tin of caviar. When I picked him up, the breeder showed me the “old English” bloodlines in his pedigree. The price included a great deal of genetic testing for known problems in the breed, plus some of his early veterinary care. He's a great dog. The best. Could we have brought home a great dog from the humane society? Absolutely. In fact, eight months after we brought Chewbacca home, our neighbors gave us their puppy of the same breed, and he's great, too. Do we feel that our 1.5 G was wasted on Chewie? No, actually. We should feel that way, but we don't. Chewie's our tuxedo dog. Courage our dog in handmedown dungarees. He will always be the object of affectionate joking about theoretical mongrels lurking in his pedigree.
My first impulse upon hearing about this story was to wonder what we can do to defend ourselves from price-point induced mania. But the answer is clear when you think about it. When you've saved and planned for that big purchase, know what you're paying for. And if some of that is not strictly objectively measurable in terms of quality or quantity, is your satisfaction and enjoyment worth the price? That's up to you.