The Power of Celebrity

November 16, 2011

In an episode of the popular sitcom Seinfeld, George thinks he has purchased a car that once belonged to the actor Jon Voight. In every conversation he finds a way to drop in the name and basks in the reflected glory and people are very impressed with him and his car. Inevitably, at the end of the episode, it is discovered that the car indeed had an owner called Voight (first name John), who was most certainly not the famous actor. At this point George is utterly disgusted with the very same car that gave him so much pleasure and pride just a little while back. 

Why would this be? Why indeed would people buy objects once owned by celebrities? This question was examined by another George (George Newman, assistant professor of organizational behavior at Yale School of Management), along with his Yale colleague Paul Bloom and Gil Diesendruck  of Bar-Ilan University, Israel. 

The authors say there are three reasons why people may covet objects owned by celebrities. One is because of their associations, as objects owned by celebrities remind us of them and their exploits. A second is that these objects may have some market value, so buying them can be seen as an investment. The third possibility is the idea of celebrity contagion. Objects may be seen as carrying the immaterial quality or “essence” of the celebrity and possessing it may transfer this quality to the buyer. Which of these explanations is true? To find out they ran a series of experiments, where they manipulated various factors such as celebrity (yes or no), valence (positive or negative) and effect (contagion or market value).

For example, in one experiment people were asked to indicate either a celebrity they deeply admired (Albert Einstein made the list) or one they really despised (Saddam Hussein made the cut). Then they were asked to imagine being able to bid on, say a sweater owned by the celebrity and their willingness to purchase it compared to a similar but decidedly generic sweater. Then they were told that the sweater was actually worn by the celebrity (or not) and had great market value (or not) and again tested on their willingness to purchase. By setting up a series of experimental steps they were able to tease out the effects of each of the factors that might contribute to the affection people have for celebrity belongings.     

What they were able to conclusively show through these experiments was that celebrity contagion plays a central role in the valuation of celebrity items, while association does not. For positive celebrities, both contagion and market value play a complementary role. That is, Einstein’s pipe may be valued for both touching him and because it has market value, so people are more willing to buy it. But for negative celebrities they play contrasting roles. So while Saddam Hussein’s beret may have market value, it is tainted by the fact that it touched him.                         

These studies show that celebrity possessions are valued for reasons that go beyond mere associations and market value. So while George’s reaction may have been funny and seemingly irrational, it is how consumers behave in the real world.    


Rajan Sambandam is a Knowledge Partner of the Yale Center for Customer Insights and Chief Research Officer of TRC Market Research, new product development firm located in suburban Philadelphia.