Friday, December 17, 2010

Buying the label

The most recent Freakanomics Radio podcast, available on the New York Times website, poses the interesting question: "Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?" It's worth listening to the entire story, but in a nutshell, the answer seems to be: yes, but only if you know they're expensive. When people know the price, they overwhelmingly prefer more expensive wines. But in blind taste tests, cheap wines actually do slightly better than pricey vintages. And that holds true across all groups of people, from wine-club newbies to highly trained sommeliers.

Now, I'm not a wine drinker, so I can't comment on this story from personal experience. But I have seen similar studies that highlight the same phenomenon for other products. For example, as I observed back in September, tap water is just as good, objectively speaking, as bottled water—it's just as clean, if not cleaner, and it does as well or better in blind taste tests. Yet bottled water drinkers consistently claim that bottled water in general, and their brand in particular, tastes better than tap water. In an episode of "Penn and Teller: Bullshit!" (which you can see here on YouTube) patrons in a fancy L.A. restaurant discourse at length about the differences in taste among bottled waters, even though each made-up brand is really the same L.A. tap water in a different bottle. (Amusingly, one of the varieties is called "L'Eau Du Robinet"—French for "tap water." You'd think at least a few of those highbrow diners would have been tipped off by that.) Also, Vance Packard reported sixty years ago in The Hidden Persuaders that most cigarette smokers are loyal to a specific brand, yet the majority of them can't correctly identify their own brand in a blind taste test.

And when you think about it, this same kind of misplaced brand loyalty really applies to all kinds of products, not just the ones you can taste. The Mercedes first became a status car because old-money types chose it for its reliability (eschewing the flashier models that were status cars at the time). But the Mercedes models of today no longer have a particularly good reliability record, yet people continue to buy them just for the name. And I've already mentioned how little premium in you get in terms of style or quality by buying designer clothes.

So what's the moral of this story? Well, there are probably all sorts of conclusions you could draw from it about social class, how expectations influence experience, the nature of brand loyalty, and the dangers of putting too much faith in of so-called experts. But for me, the most useful lesson for us ecofrugal folks is: the best snobbery is inverted snobbery. It's a lot cheaper than the other kind, and just as much fun. So if you're a wine fancier, I urge you to go pick up one of the best cheap wines and serve it at your next party. Depending on your inclinations, you could put it in a decanter and wait to surprise your guests with the name, or openly flaunt the cheap bottle (or box) and chat about how remarkable it is what a great wine 12 bucks will buy. "I just don't understand why some people pay hundreds of dollars for a bottle of wine," you can muse as make the rounds with the bottle, dressed in your best thrift-shop togs. "I mean, it's really just the label they're buying, isn't it? People who really appreciate wine only care about the taste."
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