Marilyn’s dress to Britney’s gum: the social sciences of sky-high memorabilia prices

3 months, 9 days ago

Celebrity items tend to be relatively common artefacts yet attract phenomenal sums of fund. Why?

In November last year, the dress that Marilyn Monroe wore to sing Happy Birthday to President John F Kennedy sold for $4.81 million. In 2004, several pieces of Britney Spears used chewing gum sold for up to 100 a piece. There is even a market for the belongings of scorned someones: A bracelet Charles Manson induced in prison is currently selling for $4,500.

Some of these, like Marilyn Monroes dress, reflect a moment in history. But the attraction of others, such as Britney Spears chewing gum, are harder to explain. Celebrity items tend to be relatively common artefacts such as garb or furniture. Their previous ownership rarely adds any functional value and they are often indistinguishable from other, apparently identical items in the marketplace.

Nevertheless, some people are willing to pay huge amounts of money to own these objects and museums regularly hold exhibitions of celebrity collections. Why?

Try it at home

The degree to which a person values celebrity memorabilia will fall along a continuum. Some people value celebrity belongings enormously, while other people care very little. The following thought experimentation is accommodated from a paper by George Newman and colleagues at Yale University.

Write down the name of your favourite living celebrity or public figure. This could be a movie star, a musician, a professional athlete, a politician, etc. This should be someone whom you like very much and would be excited to satisfy personally.

Now imagine that you have the opportunity to bid on a sweater that belonged to that individual. On a scale from one( much less likely to purchase) to nine( much more likely to purchase ), how willing would you be to purchase the sweater compared to an identical use sweater( in the same condition) that was not owned by your favourite living celebrity?

On a scale of one( exceedingly unpleasant) to nine( highly pleasant ), how pleasant would you find the experience of wearing the sweater?

Now consider the following:

There is very little demand for items owned by your favourite living celebrity, so even if “youre trying to”, it is highly unlikely that you could resell the sweater to someone else. How willing would you be to purchase the sweater knowing this, and how pleasant would you find wearing it?

And now consider the following information:

This sweater was given to your favourite living celebrity as a gift but he/ she never actually wore it or even opened the box that it came in. How willing would you be to purchase the sweater knowing this, and how pleasant would you find wearing it?

If you have time, repeat this set of ratings but this time imagine that the sweater belongs to a living celebrity or public figure who you despise.

How it works

In a series of studiesinvolving nine hundred and forty American respondents, George Newman and colleagues found that, on average, respondents willingness to purchase their favourite celebritys sweater was not much affected by the information that they could not re-sell it.

However, willingness plummeted when respondents learned that the sweater had never been touched by the celebrity. This was especially the suit for respondents who were also very sensitive to physical contagion( for example, saying that they would never feed novelty chocolate shaped like dog-doo ).

The writers argue that this pattern of findings show that mere associations and market forces-out have limited influence on the cult of celebrity memorabilia. Instead, they suggest that magical contagion beliefs are what is driving much of the market for celebrity memorabilia in the West.

Magical contagion was first proposed by anthropologists in the late nineteenth century when they find cultural practises focused on the transfer of a persons identity( or soul) into inanimate objects. This is thought to be the basis for rituals such as Haitian voodoo ceremonies and Tibetan processes to determine the next Dalai Lama. There is a growing wealth of research to show that magical contagion faiths are also widespread in scientifically literate, Western adults across a variety of context.

And these biases arise early. In a study I helped run with Bruce Hood( Bristol University) and Paul Bloom( Yale University) we found that children from four years of age believed that an object that had once belonged to the Queen was worth significantly more than an identical transcript. And farther research we have conducted with George Newman is showing that there are consistent cultural differences in people motive for buying celebrity memorabilia.

How did you get on? Do you value your favourite celebritys sweater a lot, a little or not at all? And what effect did the knowledge that the celebrity had never touched it have on your willingness to purchase it? Are you a magical thinker too?

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