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.

Filed Under: contagious, culture, eric clapton, mojo, value

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  1. icon
    freak (profile), 11 Mar 2011 @ 7:01pm

    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

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