The Secret Contagious Mojo That Makes People Value Stuff Connected To Famous People

from the celebrity-cooties? dept

There is sort of an odd article in the NY Times that looks at some of the psychological research that goes into why people like to own stuff that celebrities owned or touched. The report suggests that it comes back to a subconscious belief in “celebrity contagion” and “imitative magic.” That is, people sense that if they own something that someone famous touched, they somehow get to “capture” some element of that person’s essence. The report covers two separate things. First there is the obsession with owning something someone touched — where it’s noted that people value it less if it’s been washed (highlighting the whole “essence” concept). Second, is a look into why people want to buy exact replicas of a celebrity’s things. For example, the report highlights an exact replica of a famous Eric Clapton guitar. The replica is right down to the specific nicks and scratches on the guitar — even though Clapton has never touched this one. So if it was just “essence” this guitar wouldn’t be valued that highly. And while it’s obviously valued less than the real version it’s based on (which sold for just under a million dollars), it’s expected that the replica will still sell for $20,000. The thinking here is the value of “imitative magic.” That if you have something just like what a famous/successful person had, you’ll be able to get some of the same “magic” powers out of it.

Frankly, some of this sounds pretty ridiculous — a sort of inflated market version of cargo cult science — but if you’re looking to understand the psychology behind people who go to great lengths to feel some sort of connection to celebrities, it seems like worthwhile reading just to understand the underpinnings. Indeed, over the years, we’ve seen artists incorporate this kind of thinking in their own business models. They can often sell off things that they’re closely connected to, for a premium, and the buyers are quite happy. We sometimes hear from our usual critics that these business models involve finding “suckers.” But the buyers don’t seem to feel like suckers, and some of this research seems to explain why.

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Comments on “The Secret Contagious Mojo That Makes People Value Stuff Connected To Famous People”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Every business involves finding suckers to buy your stuff before they are suckered into buying the other guy’s stuff. Also, there’s a thin balance here: You must make the suckers pay for being suckers (hey, if they’re suckers enough to buy from you, you might as well stretch it), but you can’t make them feel like suckers, or else they won’t buy (because people like to think that they are SOOO smart and just hate to be called suckers).

SomeGuy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I disagree. If I legitimately want to buy an orange, and you sell me a fair-priced orange, nothing in that scenario makes me a sucker.

If I want to buy an orange and you successfully sell me an apple (while I believe I’ve just bought an orange), then I’m a sucker, and it doesn’t matter if I realize it later or not.

If I want to buy an orange and you sell me an orange but charge twice as much because “this orange is special in a nebulous way,” then I’m again a sucker, whether I realize it or not.

Dark Helmet (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Agreed. This sense of “replicating the magic” nonsense is the stuff of organized cult religions. If you do this in this order with this magic wand, you’ll have tiger’s blood and Adonis DNA, just like Charlie Sheen!

Blech. People are dumb. Anyone buying things because of some ethereal sense of celebrity magic is a sucker, whether they feel like it or not….

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“If someone doesn’t feel like a sucker, is that sufficient to claim that they’re not a sucker?”

I think the issue is that they don’t feel like a sucker even after critical analysis. If you were to fully understand that you just gave your money away for no return and are happy with that, then I wouldn’t call you a sucker, as wanting to give your money away doesn’t make you a sucker.

Brian Schroth (profile) says:

It’s pretty funny to say “the buyers don’t seem to feel like suckers” when not realizing that you’re a sucker is essentially the core part of the definition of being a sucker. The only time a sucker feels like a sucker is when further information comes to their attention that reveals to them the way they were duped.

In this case, if the buyers ever grew brain cells and realized there is no such thing as celebrity mojo, they would feel like the suckers they are.

SomeGuy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Not necessarily true. If I want Clapton’s guitar, or I want a reasonable facsimile, I don’t think that desire necessarily makes me a sucker. Collecting memorabilia may not be practical, but the best things in life aren’t.

I’m only a sucker if I think I’m getting something I want and I’m not. Wanting something that others don’t want is immaterial.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

I think to actually transfer the celebrity's power...

You have to eat their heart.

Gary Busey carved me off a slice of his once. For nearly a week, I did nothing but pick fights with random strangers and re-enact key scenes from “Point Break” (again with random strangers) before wandering back into the bedroom to cry quietly for awhile.

The whole experience was unworldly. I think what sticks with me is the fact that Johnny Utah had a hell of an arm.

Anonymous Coward says:

There was an ad a while back that played the song Easy Like Sunday Morning. A guy mocked up his favorite busted-ass looking jeans to give to his girlfriend using grease and sandpaper. Those nicks, tears, and grease spots told a story. People want that story, but they want to get it the easy way by having someone hand it to them. If they know that’s what they’re paying for then they’re not suckers, they’re following the fashion of the day. If they think it’s going to grant them magical powers, they are suckers.

Kaden (profile) says:

The same mid-life crisis victims who buy West Coast Choppers and PMY ‘Vettes keep Gibson and Fender busy churning out Relic instruments (tribute and otherwise). They’re rewarding themselves for having made those crucial lifestyle compromises 30 years ago.

When you’re the man to beat in premium composite hardwood flooring sales in the Pacific Northwest, life comes with some well deserved Rawk bling.

MrWilson says:

This reminds me of all the epic stories about the magic swords and mythological items that heroes had. Maybe the original was that these items simply belonged to famous people and thus magical properties were attributed to them by association.

“Charlie Sheen pissed on it, it must be magical!”

We need to write some more modern myths with this convention.

Anonymous Coward says:

You discount people wanting this but how is this any different between buying a Ferrari vs. a Ford Focus? They both are transportation.

What makes a baseball card worth a million dollars?

Just because I don’t care about autographs or stuff like that doesn’t mean others don’t, and no one has a right to denigrade others for what they put value in.

I am quite sure there is something that you prize that I would laugh at.

freak (profile) says:

Personally, I’m a collector, and I buy a lot of stuff that other people would consider worthless or overpriced.

(Right now, I have a sci-fi, a hat, and a record collection, while my programming textbook collection is inactive).

I don’t think I’m a sucker, (most of them time), because what I’m buying isn’t a “close replica of someone’s hat”, it’s:
A conversation point; A completionist feeling; Owning something unique, either per item or per collection, and notable; Serving to represent my full interest in a field, sometimes where it would otherwise be impossible (ex1) due to scarcity, or at least difficult to accurately represent with abundant materials; and other such things.

In other words, the building of my collections is part of my self-identity. Utility only rarely comes into play, even though it often multiplies the value of an item in my eyes, it rarely effects how much I want to buy it.
(So an unscratched record, because it gives clear sound, is worth more to me, but I don’t buy many records to listen to them. I DO listen to my records. But if I wanted to listen to the music, rather than buying them, there’s a little thing I know of that I call “the internet”.)

Example 1: I paid $250 for a copy of a textbook once because it couldn’t be found and I wanted a copy. (A LISP AI textbook from 1985 by an ex-berkeley prof, Wilensky comes to mind, but I think I’m being confused, possibly with LISPcraft, a different text), comparable textbooks from that time usually go for

freak (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Eh, the relevance to this articles comes in mainly in my record collection.

Of course, records signed by the artists or related people are worth more to me. My collection have a focus on early East Canadian rock, because I know a lot of the people who were involved, and thus can get signatures. So, the Stringbusters, The Ducats, The Two Cat Showband, etc.
I have all 6 albums from the Ducats signed by the full band, because the first drummer was the dad of one of my co-workers at the time, (That’s how I know a lot of the people involved).
These are more valuable to me because of their notability uniqueness, what it says about my dedication to my hobby/collection, because I can also get documents, interviews and stories told by and authenticated by the members of the bands to better record the experience in more than just the music, (Folklorists love me), and y’know, other such things.

The records and signatures and everything are probably worth shit-all to most other people because these were small bands that no one else remembers. But I’m willing to pay usually ~$100 for each record + signatures + stories, as well as spending my time transcribing and filing everything, (rule of thumb: for every 1 hour of recording, that’s 6 hours transcribing for clearly spoken speech. Eastern Canada has a number of strong accents, and most of those guys can talk all night about when they were ‘local rock stars’). (Most of that $100 is usually transportation to them rather than paying them or buying the record, usually around $20. A day of bussing each way at the least, possibly a 5-day trip sometimes, or a 2-day with $400 plane ticket. But that would only be if a couple of bands have a reunion or meeting, or just all live really close together anyways, (ie: within Halifax)).

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