The Price of (Other People’s) Fame

I have a drumstick — the musical kind, not the Kentucky Fried kind — that is 25 years old. I don’t play the drums, and I never have. The world is a better place for it. But knowing that I have a drumstick that is 25 years old and that I don’t play the drums likely tells you something very specific about the drumstick.

It once belonged to someone famous.

Or at least I was told it did. I don’t really know. I didn’t actually see Larry Mullen (U2) throw it off the stage in Worcester in 1987. But, I was there. And some time not much later the person who did catch it found out how much of a U2 fan I was and gave it to me (she’d soured on the band by then). I have had it ever since.

I didn’t have to pay for the drumstick, but of all the things I have kept with me over the years, in many ways, this makes the least sense. For one, I can’t really be sure that it was Larry Mullen’s. Second, even if it had been used to bang out Sunday Bloody Sunday… well, so what? Why would that matter? Why would I value this glorified twig so much that I would carry it with me wherever I went for my entire adult life? When I hold it (which I never do — it’s in a box in the closet), I am no closer to being able to play Sunday Bloody Sunday myself. When I hold it up, it makes no music. The song is not in the stick.

Of course, I am not alone in my celebrity object fetish. We have all read accounts of the exorbitant prices paid at auction for items once owned by a celebrity: John F. Kennedy’s golf clubs – $772,000; John Lennon’s piano – $2,000,000.00; a jacket once worn by Jimmy Hendrix – $49,200; and perhaps the whackiest – the remains of Justin Timberlake’s french toast, bought by someone who thought she might freeze dry it and put it on the mantel – for $3,154. And if you just can’t go another moment without a cast-off from one of your favorite celebs, you can check out Startifacts, and eBay auction site that specializes in such things (I have my eye on a pair of sunglasses once worn by Bruce Lee – starting at $3,900.00).

That could be my drumstick!!!

There are a number of possible explanations for why we value things that were once owned by a celebrity, and in a research paper published last year, psychologists tested the leading possibilities. They are:

  1. Association – the object reminds us of the famous person, and we value it for that reason
  2. Their market value – we might value the items because other people do, and maybe we  will want to sell the item some day to make a huge profit
  3. Contagion – The third possible reason is more psychological. Contagion refers to the thought that we have all had — that by touching or having something that was once in the possession of someone we admire, we might ‘catch’ a little of what that admired person had. (For readers who have read our recent post concerning tampons and the cookies, you may recognize the concept, but this time working in the other direction.)

Researchers George Newman, Gil Diesendruck and Paul Bloom set up a series of clever experiments to determine which was the most powerful force driving up the price of celebrity stuff. Among the three, association was the least important. Simply having an item that reminds us of a celebrity is not enough of a motivation. That stands to reason. Celebrities are, in a word, famous, and anyone who would willingly pay $3000.00 for Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten breakfast bread would probably not need the object on the mantel to be reminded of his existence.

Market value is an important factor for some. People do buy celebrity items with the intent of one day marking them up and selling them along. However, as with Larry Mullen’s drumstick and Justin Timberlake’s french toast, many of the things we keep with us are not for sale at any price.

This basketball, signed by Michaels Jordan and Jackson, sold for $29,4000

What the researchers found was that what people really pay for is the opportunity to have and to hold something that was once had and held by our favorite famous person. And the more that person was thought to have had and held and esteemed that object, the more we are willing to pay for it.

By having and holding that same object, we feel we get to have and hold a bit of our beloved celebrity — even if there really is nothing of the celebrity in the object. The song is not in the stick, and neither is Larry Mullen.

How is this relevant to your finances? You have probably never paid an absurd price for a celebrity object. But, it is likely that you buy brands that are endorsed by celebrities, or were “designed” by celebrities. Or, you may simply like a brand because some celebrity you fancy also buys that brand. You may even pay more than you need to for things (clothes, jewelry, etc.), because they look like the kind of things that celebrities you like have. There’s nothing particularly wrong with that. If you have the money, after all, it is yours to do with as you please. But it might not be a bad idea to pause and consider whether the premium you are paying is buying you what you are really hoping to have and to hold. After all, the article describing this phenomenon was published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The marketers know why we will pay extra. We should, too.

At BeyondThePurchase.Org we are researching the connection between people’s spending habitshappiness, and values.  To learn about your spending habits, what influences your buying behavior, and how you define the good life, first Login or Register with Beyond The Purchase, then take our Materialistic Values Scale, our Consumer Susceptibility to Interpersonal Influence Scale, and our Beliefs about Well-being. We think you may learn a lot about what causes you to part with your hard-earned money.

The article referenced above is called, “Celebrity Contagion and the Value of Objects,” and was published in the Journal of Consumer Research, August, 2011.

This blog post was written by Kerry Cunningham, a graduate student in the Personality & Wellbeing Laboratory at San Francisco State University.

About Kerry

Kerry has an M.S. in Industrial-Organizational psychology and something just short of 20 years experience as a manager and executive in b2b direct marketing. Currently, Kerry works with organizations to improve processes and practices in the area of people management. In addition, Kerry has a deep and abiding passion for all things evolution, but particularly evolutionary perspectives on organizational and economic behavior. When not geeking out with research literature and data, Kerry is generally playing tennis and/ or enjoying a restorative cocktail.
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