Tyranny of the Alphabet

How to protect your pockets.
Jan. 28 2011 6:16 PM

Tyranny of the Alphabet

A new study explores how your last name influences how fast you buy stuff.

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Carlson and Conard concede at the study's end that they can't really say whether the R-Zs' quicker response to act-now-type marketing makes them smart shoppers or suckers. In the first and third experiments, it seems to me a toss-up as to whether the responders are acting on sincere priorities or merely demonstrating suggestibility as they rearrange plans to seize free basketball tickets and bottles of wine. The second and fourth experiments seem clearer cases of what economists call "maximizing utility." I don't know anyone who couldn't use an extra $500; do you? And the hypothetical about the backpack assumes that the student really needs a new backpack, so unless he's on his way to an exam or a first date with his future wife or a job interview with Goldman Sachs—and none of these are in the hypothetical—he'd be foolish to pass up the discount.

We leave, then, for another day whether the childhood suffering entailed in having a name at the end of the alphabet makes you a stronger person better equipped to navigate a complex marketplace or a weaker person easily manipulated into acquiring stuff you don't need or even particularly want. Deep down, Carlson and Conard (who both rank high in the A-I cohort) probably don't care. Their audience (apart from fellow academics) is marketing professionals, to whom the only relevant question is: Will targeting the R-Zs be more profitable? The answer, it seems, is "Yes."

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Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His  book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.

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