George Clooney or Saddam Hussein? Why do consumers pay for celebrity possessions?

Feb 14, 2011

A new study in the Journal of Consumer Research sheds some light into why someone would pay $48,875 for a tape measure that had belonged to Jackie Kennedy or $3,300 for Bernie Madoff's footstool.

"Why do people pay money for celebrity possessions?" write authors George E. Newman (Yale University), Gil Diesendruck (Bar-Ilan University), and Paul Bloom (Yale University). "Celebrity items often have little functional value. And because the objects themselves tend to be relatively common artifacts (clothing, furniture, etc.) they are often physically indistinguishable from a number of seemingly identical products in the marketplace."

The authors researched potential explanations for the phenomenon, delving into the concept of "contagion," the belief that a person's immaterial qualities or essence can be transferred onto an object through physical contact. "We were curious to examine the degree to which contagion beliefs may account for the valuation of celebrity items," the authors explain.

In their first study, the authors asked participants how much they would like to own and non-celebrity possessions. They asked about well-regarded individuals (like George Clooney) or despised individuals (like Saddam Hussein). They measured the dimensions of contagion, perceived market value, and liking of the individual. "For well-liked celebrities, the primary explanation seemed to be contagion—participants expressed a desire to own some of the individual's actual physical remnants," the authors write. In contrast, when the items had belonged to a despised individual, people perceived that the items were potentially valuable to others, but contact with the hated individuals decreased the items' value.

In a second experiment, participants reported their willingness to purchase a sweater owned by someone famous (well-liked or despised). However, the sweater was "transformed" by sterilization or preventing its resale. For well-liked celebrities sterilizing reduced participants' willingness to purchase the sweater, while preventing the resale of the item had a comparably minimal effect. "In contrast, for despised individuals, the pattern was the opposite: removing contact only increased the sweater's value while preventing the sale to others significantly reduced participants' willingness to purchase it," the authors conclude.

Explore further: Public boarding school—the way to solve educational ills?

More information: George E. Newman, Gil Diesendruck, and Paul Bloom. "Celebrity Contagion and the Value of Objects." Journal of Consumer Research: August 2011. Further information: ejcr.org . To be published online soon.

Related Stories

The high cost of low status

Jun 26, 2008

Feeling powerless can trigger strong desires to purchase products that convey high status, according to new research in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Admiring celebrities can help improve self-esteem

Jun 05, 2008

A new study appearing in Personal Relationships shows how "connections" to celebrities, i.e. parasocial relationships, can allow people with low-self esteem to view themselves more positively.

Recommended for you

Public boarding school—the way to solve educational ills?

Apr 25, 2015

Buffalo's chronically struggling school system is considering an idea gaining momentum in other cities: public boarding schools that put round-the-clock attention on students and away from such daunting problems as poverty, ...

Study finds we think better on our feet, literally

Apr 24, 2015

A study from the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Public Health finds students with standing desks are more attentive than their seated counterparts. In fact, preliminary results show 12 percent ...

Improving transfer of migrant remittances

Apr 24, 2015

Millions of people work abroad as maids, construction workers and other low-wage laborers. The money they send back home is essential to their families, helping them start businesses, send children to school ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

geokstr
3 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2011
Because there's no accounting for taste.
kaasinees
3 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2011
Cause people are retarded?
xznofile
not rated yet Feb 15, 2011
I'll verify contagion, I live near a place where Charlie Manson lived in the '60s, it burned down and they found a Saturday night special in the ashes, nobody seemed to want it except for another loco. his wife gave it to me to get it out of the house, I gave it to the police. it was creepy.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.