Friday, 1 April 2011

Clothes may make the man, but it is the label that really counts.

I've got you labeled.

Clothes may make the man, but it is the label that really counts.

Mar 31st 2011.

Designers of fancy apparel would like their customers to believe that wearing their creations lends an air of wealth, sophistication and high status. And it does—but not, perhaps, for the reason those designers might like to believe. A new piece of research confirms what many, not least in the marketing departments of fashion houses, will long have suspected: that it is not the design itself that counts, but the label.

Rob Nelissen and Marijn Meijers of Tilburg University in the Netherlands examined people’s reactions to a group of men who were wearing clothes made by Lacoste and Tommy Hilfiger, two well-known brands that sell what they are pleased to refer to as designer clothing. As the two researchers show in a paper about to be published in Evolution and Human Behavior, such clothes do bring the benefits promised: co-operation from others, job recommendations and even the ability to collect more money when soliciting for charity. But they work only when the origin of the clothes in question is obvious.

It seems, then, that labels count. The question is, why?

The answer, Dr Nelissen and Dr Meijers suspect, is the same as why the peacock with the best tail gets all the girls. People react to designer labels as signals of real quality. Only the best can afford them.

This study confirms a wider phenomenon. A work of art’s value, for example, can change radically, depending on who is believed to have created it, even though the artwork itself is unchanged. And people will willingly buy fake goods, knowing they are not genuine, if they show the right label. What is interesting is that the label is so persuasive. In the case of the peacock, the tail works precisely because it cannot be faked. An unhealthy bird’s feathers will never sparkle. But humans often fail to see beyond the superficial. For humans, then, the status-evaluation mechanism is going wrong.

If everyone agrees something has high status, then it does. But that agreement often transfers the status from the thing to the label. Maybe a further million years or so of evolution will eliminate this failing.
In the meantime, marketers can open another bottle of champagne.

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