Placebo dp _1_
םילשוריב תירבעה הטיסרבינואה
THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY OF JERUSALEM
BRAND NAMES ACT LIKE MARKETING
MOTY AMAR, DAN ARIELY, MAYA BAR-HILLEL,
and CHEZY OFIR
Discussion Paper # 566 Feb 2011
CENTER FOR THE STUDY
Feldman Building, Givat-Ram, 91904 Jerusalem, Israel
Brand names act like marketing placebos
This research illustrates the power of reputation, such as that embodied in brand names,
demonstrating that names can enhance objective
product efficacy. Study participants facing a
glaring light were asked to read printed words as accurately and as quickly as they could,
receiving compensation proportional to their performance. Those wearing sunglasses tagged
Ray-Ban made fewer errors, yet read more quickly, than those wearing the identical pair of
sunglasses when tagged Mango (a less prestigious brand). Similarly, ear-muffs blocked noise
more effectively, and chamomile tea improved mental focus more, when otherwise identical
target products carried more reputable names.
Well known biases such as observer-expectancy effects (Rosenthal, 1994) illustrate
that reputation can shape perceptions. Psychologists have long known that commercial
reputation, such as that embodied in brands, can color expectations and subjective
experiences. For example, the same meat tasted better when it sported a better known brand
(Makens, 1964). More generally, consumers often believe that brand names signal quality,
and hence they expect products carrying more reputable brands to be better. This research
suggests a related, but more intriguing, possibility: brands can actually affect
rather than merely signaling
it. We will demonstrate that labeling the same product with a
more reputable brand name actually improved the objectively measured performance of those
Preliminary support exists for the possibility that branding can alter the consumption
experience. Allison and Uhl (1964) found that people who barely distinguished between
different beers in a blind taste test sensed significant differences between the same beers
when they bore brand labels. Using a more objective measure than self-reports, McClure, Li,
Tomlin, Montague & Montague, 2004) found that the greater pleasure people reported while
knowingly consuming Coca-Cola vs. Pepsi-Cola corresponded to higher activation levels in
the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, a brain area associated with emotions and cultural
Thus, branding effects are reminiscent of medical placebo responses. Abundant
empirical data suggests that placebos (i.e., pharmacologically inert therapies, such as sugar
pills) can help people cope with pain (Price, Milling, Kirsch, Duff, Montgomery & Nicholls,
1999), and depression (Leuchter, Morgan, Cook, Dunkin, Abrams & Witte, 2004). Those
conditions are difficult to assess objectively, but there is also evidence of placebo responses
to conditions more amenable to objective assessment such as physical fitness (Crum &
Langer, 2007), irritable bowel syndrome (Patel et al., 2005), Parkinson’s disease (Dela-
Fuente-Fernández et al., 2001), and coronary artery disease (Granger et al., 2005).
We compared performance of participants utilizing a product (sunglasses, earmuffs,
or chamomile tea) said to assist task performance (visual, auditory, or mental concentration,
respectively) when it carried more prestigious versus less prestigious brand names.
Participants were students, mean age 26, roughly 50% women. A between subject design was
used, with 3 (task: overcoming glare vs. overcoming noise vs. concentrating)-by- 2 (brand
prestige: high vs. low) independent variables. The dependent variables were number of
correct responses, and, where applicable, also speed.
Overcoming Glare: Stimuli and Procedure.
Participants (N=60) were asked to read
aloud, as quickly and accurately as possible, 84 unrelated words printed on a 12cm-by-12cm
transparency placed in front of a 60-watt incandescent bulb, in a lamp lined with aluminum
foil to amplify glare. Participants, tested individually, sat at a table, their chin on a pad fixed
70cm away from the lamp. To reduce glare, all wore the same pair of sunglasses, labeled
“Blocks 80% of visible light.” Participants were randomly assigned to either the prestigious
brand (Ray-Ban, N=30), or the less prestigious brand (Mango), conveyed via a sticker on the
frame. They received 20NIS (then ~$5) for participation, plus 0.15NIS per correctly read
Overcoming Noise: Stimuli and Procedure
. Participants (N=43) heard 62 unrelated
words, one every 3 seconds, recorded and played on the background of a noisy construction
site, and were asked to write down each word as they heard it. They were tested individually,
all donning the same pair of protective earmuffs, said to “filter onerous audio frequencies,
reducing noise while assisting in hearing conversations”. Participants were randomly
assigned, via a sticker on the earmuffs, to either the prestigious (3M, N=22) or the less
prestigious brand (Etkes), receiving 20NIS for participation, plus 0.15NIS per correct word,
Concentration: Stimuli and Procedure.
Participants (N=55) drank an identical cup of
chamomile tea, described as "soothing to body and mind”, but were randomly assigned, via
an accompanying tag, to either a prestigious (Wisotsky, N=27) or a less prestigious brand
(Hamutag). All then saw 35 flowerlike sketches, each with 48 small circles of different sizes
surrounding a central point. Most circles (42-48) were connected to the center with a stem-
like line (see Figure 1). Participants had 3 minutes to detect and connect all unconnected
circles (not enough to complete this exacting task, which requires focus and patience),
moving between “flowers” as quickly as they could.
An example of the flowerlike pattern utilized in study 2 1.
Visual task: Participants wearing sunglasses tagged Ray-Ban made fewer errors than
those wearing the same sunglasses, but tagged Mango (6.2 vs. 12.2 errors; t(58)=-3.52), and
completed the task faster (64.4 vs. 102.8 seconds; t(58)=-5.89). Fewer errors cannot,
Auditory task: Participants wearing earmuffs tagged 3M identified more words
correctly (26.1 vs. 21.4; t(58)=-4.1), but not more words incorrectly (26.1 vs. 27.8; t(58)=-
1 Taken from a test named “Flaw recognition” in Preparation for Selection tasks,
1.54, ns) than those wearing the same earmuffs, but tagged Etkes; speed was constant by
Mental concentration task: Participants drinking tea tagged Wisotsky detected more
missing lines (35.5 vs. 30.8; t(53)=-2.66), and had fewer ‘false-alarms’ (0.63 vs. 3.75;
t(53)=3.67) than those drinking the same tea, but tagged Hamutag; time was fixed by design.
Our experiments illustrate that brand names can change
, rather than merely reflect,
product efficacy. An interesting question is whether such reputation effects on product
efficacy apply specifically to the dimensions for which the brands are known (cf. Lee,
Frederick & Ariely 2006), as in our studies, or also generate a more diffuse ‘halo effect’.
Our findings raise intriguing possibilities. For example, could knife manufacturers
licensing use of the Volvo name, which is associated with safety, reduce cutting accidents?
Conversely, and disconcertingly, might substituting generic versions of branded medications
(a popular practice of healthcare organizations) be detrimental to patients’ health? Current
debates about bioequivalence (i.e., no significant differences in effects of active ingredients
administered in similar conditions) focus on whether unmonitored ingredients of medications
affect therapeutic efficacy. Our results question how bioequivalence should be defined and
Branding effects on objective efficacy are a fascinating, if as yet not completely
understood, phenomenon, worthy of further research exploring its breadth and causes, with
Allison, R.I. & Uhl, K. (1964) Influence of beer brand identification on taste perception.
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