Recently, an elderly man took to the streets with some original Banksy works which he attempted to sell for sixty dollars each. They were unmarked, unsigned, and extremely undervalued. The work of the subversive UK artist, filmmaker, and activist has sold for millions, making this sale a treasure trove for anyone who seized a painting. The man only sold seven pieces of art. In one day, Banksy displayed our strepitous value system, in which concept is nothing, and context is everything.
Our derivation of value is not as concrete as we would like it to be. Banksy, freeing these works from his ubiquitous name, sold the pieces with no signature, and nothing to show except his style. He separated the hype from the art, and the brand from the person. Without recognizing this dissociation between idea and individual, we ignore reality. The continuous integration of contextual bias leads us to synthesize skewed values from our skewed perceptions.
The way we validate a purchase generally stems from artfully crafted associations, which we refer to as brands. Brands feed our impressionable minds potent marketing propaganda. This concept permits Coke its “happy-fun-times” façade, allowing the identity of Coke to overshadow Pepsi and Royal Crown. Over time, brands like Coke create a name, a marketable persona, and an ideal that has contextual references throughout history. They create a story that is inseparable from their name.
In the book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” psychologist Paul Bloom sums up this idea quite well:
“Everyone knows that the value of a painting shoots up if it is discovered to be by a famous artist, and plummets if it is discovered to be a fake…. Our obsession with history and context… is not snobbery or silliness. Much of the pleasure we get from art is rooted in an appreciation of the human history underlying its creation. This is its essence.”
The psychology behind these principles is addressed in a famous experiment published from 1985 by Richard Thaler. In summation, the experiment found when people were told, in an imaginary scenario, whether they could buy a beer from a “run-down grocery store” or a “fancy resort hotel,” they changed the median price they were willing to pay from $1.50 to $2.65. As Adam Alter of The New Yorker put it: “Paying $2.65 at a fancy resort makes you expansive; paying $2.65 at a run-down grocery store makes you a chump.”
This price difference shows how much an evaluation of perceived cost can alter a person’s willingness to spend money. In layman’s terms: a respected supplier means a larger cost. Apple, Inc. is a great example of this perception. They are able to market their most basic laptops above the one thousand dollar price mark without any issues. This isn’t because of their functionality, but because of their idealistic marketing, history, and respectability.
It seems ridiculous to assume that everyone bases his or her purchases on brands, but it is accurate to state that everyone enjoys a brand they respect. Banksy, a brand of sorts, has gained critical acclaim, making his art worth millions. Names like Banksy contain history, and all brands have an opportunity to take time and mold theirs into a worthwhile story. The ones perceived as superior will continue to be consumed at the high price mark, whereas the nameless, like the elderly man in Central Park, will continue to sell products for a fraction of the cost. The fact that we continue to use biased qualifications for our own values proves that we don’t pay for what we get, but that we get what we pay for.