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Jan 20, 2010 | Comments

The following story is about magic–the marketing kind (via psychologist Paul Bloom’s fantastic new book, How Pleasure Works):

Art and Value

In the 1930s, the The Supper at Emmaus (pictured below) sold for $4 million. Critics widely revered the painting, considering it a lost work from famous 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer. It was praised for its beauty and paraded to many museums.


In 1947, The Supper at Emmanous, once considered a masterpiece, was discovered to be a forgery by expert counterfeiter Han van Meegeren, suddenly becoming worthless. After this discovery, curators labeled the painting a poor copy, attacking its technique and flaws, incomparable to the brilliance of Vermeer.

The story suggests a strange disconnect, especially for those that loved the painting as a “Vermeer.” How an item be valued one day at $4 million and worthless the next? Or as psychologist Paul Bloom writes, how can a beautiful painting become suddenly ugly, while aesthetically remaining unchanged?

History, Essences, and Magic

The Vermeer story presents an intriguing phenomena: a museum paid $4 million for The Supper at Emmanous not because it was a beautiful painting. Even an exact replicate of The Supper, one identically cloned down to the last brush stroke, would be worthless. Any economist, treating consumers as rational, would find such a scenario silly. Surely, two objects with the same physical properties and utility should not differ in value.

Bloom has an interesting theory to make sense of it all (I’ll spare you the academics, but it’s heavy philosophy and psychology): humans get a hell of a lot of pleasure out of the non-physical stuff. Call it what you want: magic, essences, history, or context–but it has an immense impact on happiness and utility. It affects the spectrum of our material consumption, from our fascination with celebrity clothing (Michael Jackson’s glove) to our treasure of sentimental objects (a security blanket).

For example, part of the pleasure from drinking Figi Water is not from what’s in the bottle–but its nature, its history from half-way around the world. Similarly, I would pay a premium to drive a BMW because its made by BMW–even if Ford handed me an exact replicate. Any knock-offs, regardless of their quality, will never be worth as much as the real thing.

Research confirms the power of marketing products in terms of the irrational stuff–the deeper factors that no one expects to work. Though counter-intuitive, a product’s history provides a great deal of pleasure. An example of this magical “essence” effect is observed in the following fantastic research-lab example [via How Pleasure Works]:

The psychologists Justin Kruger and his colleagues exposed subjects to a poem, a painting, or a suit of armor, and telling them different stories about how long they took to make. For instance, subjects would be shown an abstract painting and half would be told that it took four hours to paint, and half would be told it took 26 hours. As predicted, those told that it took more time to create provided higher ratings for quality, value, and liking. [source: The Effort Heuristic].

As this research evolves and becomes popularized, it will make its way into the hearts of marketers (the success of books like Predictably Irrational will help). It presents a big short-cut for marketers, especially when a product’s real-world benefits are not anything worth touting. And I imagine that with a bit of creativity and innovation, marketers could manufacture a brilliant history and essence for otherwise boring brands.

Something to think about: pleasure is deeper than product benefits, specs, and value propositions. The most important qualities are often those that don’t even matter, the intangibles that we irrational humans passionately treasure.

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