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.

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Thursday Bram's picture

Just as there is an emotional payoff for having the biggest, shiniest toys on the block, I think there is an emotional payoff for having saved up and bought that toy. For me, being able to pay out of pocket — without help from family or without debt — makes me feel really good about a purchase, especially if I've saved up for a top-of-the-line item.

Philip Brewer's picture

I like to fight the impulse to think that the most expensive must be the best by finding reasons to sneer at the expensive stuff.

It works especially well when costs more is what used to be the best. A really good mechanical watch was once at the pinnacle of human engineering practice. My cheap quartz watch keeps much better time than any mechanical watch--even one that costs 500 times as much. Very good sneering opportunities there.

It can also work when what costs more is only slightly better. I really like writing with good fountain pens, but between the precision manufacturing and the precious metals, you can't get a really good fountain pen for less than $100. A good gel pen that costs a few dollars writes better than a cheap fountain pen, and almost as well as a great fountain pen. (I own too many fountain pens to have much room for sneering here, but I recommend it to other people.)

For many things, it's worth paying for the best. But it's never as simple as that, and a little strategic sneering can bring considerable satisfaction, making it easier to go with the cheap choice.

Guest's picture

I bought a Space Pen for just under $20 when a cheaper ballpoint pen would've done just as well for most ordinary uses. Why? I'm not sure any more. I use it primarily for writing Postcrossing postcards.

Guest's picture

I'm with Thursday on this one...I saved up, watched the used market on craigs-list, and bought with cash my first motorcycle.

It was a salvaged motorcycle that needed only light work that a neophyte could do with a little guidance from a service manual (included with the bike - score!) and a good friend who does auto and bike repair for his family. Now that I have done the work and had it inspected and declared street legal by the highway patrol, I feel I am much more connected to that bike than my friend who went and got a loan and spent 4 to 5 times as much on a newer bike.

Sure his is a shiny new 07 model and has a bigger engine and goes alot faster than my 10 year old fixer upper...but I didn't put myself into debt for a new toy. And I love my bike!

Catherine Shaffer's picture

You are right, Thursday. I think sometimes the reward of spending money you worked hard to save up is worth more than whatever you are spending it on. We are in the realm of dreams and desires when it comes to luxury items, and as long as people aren't taking out a second mortgage or loading up their credit card, I can't begrudge them the enhanced pleasure that seems to come with buying a big-ticket item every once in a while. I've certainly done it myself.

(And yes, the sneering, I like it, too.)

Catherine Shaffer

Wise Bread Contributor

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