Weapon 5: #4 of 100
The English language is a shifting morass of meaning and sentiment. An example? The word ‘awful’. In the 1300s, this word was used to describe things capable of generating awe or respect (as in ‘full of awe’ or ‘awe-full’). An awful meal in medieval times would therefore have meant something very different to what it does now!
The meaning of words can shift in the other direction too. ‘Nice’ is a good example of this. In the 13th century, to call someone ‘nice’ would be to call them foolish or stupid. Who knows: once upon a time, an ‘awfully nice’ person may have been someone whose level of stupidity was awe-inspiring!
Most words, however, have relatively stable meanings. Take the word ‘contaminate’. In its modern usage, the word ‘contaminate’ is used to describe the tainting or infecting of one thing with another. This meaning can be traced all the way back to its Latin root, contaminatus, which meant ‘to defile.’
And yet, maybe the meaning (or at least the negative connotations) associated with ‘contaminate’ should change just as those associated with ‘awful’ and ‘nice’ have also changed. Why? Although we may not always think about it in this way, all of us will experience moments when we will want to, well, contaminate ourselves with someone else.
Sometimes, this desire for contamination will be literal. As the singer in one of La+ch’s songs tells us, ‘I love things your germs are on’. Quirkily icky, I know, and yet…
Nope, still quirkily icky.
More often, this desire for contamination will be symbolic. A good example of this occurs when we collect artefacts from our heroes, whether it be sporting memorabilia or autographed objects or a rock star's sweaty castoffs. In collecting these artefacts, we are effectively looking to acquire some of the original essence of the people who once used or created these artefacts. We are, in other words, seeking to symbolically contaminate ourselves with those people.
Symbolic contamination manifests itself not only in a desire for objects once owned by our heroes; it can also influence how we evaluate numbered, limited edition products. How? To properly explain this effect, we need to make a slight detour into musical history.
The White Album is considered by some to be one of the most influential records released by The Beatles. Rolling Stones magazine, for instance, ranked the album at #10 of the 500 greatest albums of all time, while Pitchfork gave it a retrospective score of 10/10. Little wonder then that a lively resale market for original pressings of the White Album continues to this day. There is, however, a curious feature about this resale market; while some original pressings of the White Album fetch a few dollars, others are traded for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
As well as featuring a creative (if eclectic) mix of music, the White Album features an interesting design feature: every original pressing of the album was stamped with a unique serial number. And the lower this serial number, the greater the resale price. Some recent examples? An album with the serial number 0000005 sold for £19,201 in 2008, while in 2015, an album with the serial number 0000001 sold for a staggering $790,000.
On the basis of this evidence, featuring a low serial number on a product appears to give that product some sort of special value. But what exactly is the nature of this value?
The authors behind a recent Journal of Consumer Research article had an inkling: they believed the desire for pressings of the White Album with low serial numbers was an attempt by collectors to symbolically contaminate themselves with The Beatles. Put differently, collectors felt closer to The Beatles when their pressing of the White Album featured a low serial number, and for the avid fan, this sense of closeness was something to be desired.
To test this idea, the authors of this article conducted a series of carefully constructed experiments. Across several experiments, they found that this effect was not just restricted to collectors of the White Album; equivalent findings were also found for apparel and art. They also found that when the serial numbers featured on a product became disconnected to the order in which that product was manufactured, the effect disappeared. Finally, they found that people perceived products with low serial numbers as storing more of the ‘original essence’ of the makers of those products than equivalent products with higher serial numbers. And when people didn’t like the maker or target of that product, this effect disappeared. Who, after all, wants to share the ‘original essence’ of someone they don’t like?
If we take a step back and look at this evidence in its totality, we arrive at two interesting conclusions.
Conclusion 1: A printed number on an otherwise identical product can change our sense of connection with the maker of that product. And when we feel a sense of connection with the maker, we place greater value on that product. So next time you see a numbered, limited edition product, spend a moment thinking about the psychology at play here. And if you have a choice, purchase the product with the lowest serial number possible; if nothing else, chances are it will have a greater resale value.
Conclusion 2: Decades on, The Beatles continue to shed light on the human condition.