Q&A: Rob Walker on the value of a narrative


Three Wolf Moon is an ugly T-shirt. Yet somehow it became Amazon's top-selling item of apparel for months. It all started with a single fictional review on the site, attributing magical powers of feminine attraction to the shirt. Hundreds of similarly bogus reviews soon poured in, along with the orders. Ultimately, the Three Wolf Moon factory had to work overtime to fill the orders, and New Hampshire designated it the official T-shirt of the state's economic development.
  It's an idea that writers adore: the notion that a good story can impart value to an insignificant object. Already desirable or at least useful objects—booze, coffee, everything ever written up in the J. Peterman catalog—can obviously have their value increased through a robust back story. (It's called advertising.) But what about objects that are undesirable? That are poorly made, useless or ugly? Can they ever become valuable or sellable? To those who don't believe in the transcendent power of a good story to elevate even a T-shirt with three wolves on it, behold: the Significant Objects project.
  Joshua Glenn, author of Taking Things Seriously, and Rob Walker, author of Buying In, as well as the "Consumed" column in The New York Times, created the Significant Objects project with a simple hypothesis that "narrative is a key x-factor influencing an object's exchange value." To prove their theory, they bought insignificant objects from thrift stores and garage sales, each costing no more than a few bucks, and had writers like William Gibson, Charles Baxter and Jennifer Weiner create fictional short stories about them. Then they posted the items and the stories on eBay, with a disclaimer emphasizing that the tales were fiction, and waited for the bids. They sold the first round of 100 objects, originally bought for $128.74, for $3,612.51. Not too shabby.
  Now, they're into the third round of their experiment, and all the first-round data numbers have been crunched. Rob Walker recently took a moment to answer my questions over e-mail about the experiment and the takeaway for advertisers. Check out our conversation after the jump.

—Posted by Rebecca Cullers

Q. Obviously, ownership imparts value. If something was your grandmother's, it's likely worth more to you, and if Michael Jackson wore it, it's likely worth more at auction. Is that why you paired writers with objects instead of letting the writers use their own household junk? In case some rabid fan's desire for William Gibson's actual napkin holder botched the experiment?
  A. Yes, exactly. We actually had one or two writers suggest they write about their own junk instead of ours. But it seemed like that would throw the whole experiment off—it becomes about memorabilia. We wanted to be as explicit as possible that this stuff has no actual significance; all significance purely made up. I was concerned at one point that there would be misunderstanding about that, but it never happened.
  Interestingly a number of the made-up stories did associate the objects with celebrities—including Michael Jackson in one case.

  Q. You've mentioned that as the project gets more press, the objects should go up in value. Once the objects are being bought not necessarily because of the stories but because they're part of the famous Significant Objects project, does the experiment cease to be effective as an experiment?
  A. Really once we did the original 100 objects, the experimental phase was basically over. And while it was true that in general the prices trended up over time, when you really look at the patterns, it wasn't as pronounced as I'd thought. In some ways the very first writers did get penalized, those prices tended to be lower. And of course they took the biggest risk, because at that point it was a total gamble that anybody would buy these things, or that Josh and I would even be able to keep rounding up enough writers to complete the experiment. Once we got a certain amount of momentum, and readers could see that other people had really bought stuff, and so on, it got a lot easier.
  The question about what role "the famous Significant Objects project" plays in all this is a really fascinating one, something I've pondered but never quite figured out. My hunch is that it's a factor, but more along the lines of people liking the concept as opposed to, I don't know, buying into the hype. We've gotten a pretty decent amount of attention, but not what I'd call mass attention—like the Today show or something. To people who like the concept, I think the concept becomes a kind of second story for the object. So, when someone sees the absurd doodad on your shelf and asks about it, the answer is a pretty good double-narrative: the narrative of Significant Objects as this weird online experiment, and then the narrative the writer invented.

  Q. How important do you think the writer's own following and significant body of work is to the final price? Have you looked at the data based on number of book copies sold or anything?
  A. We haven't cross referenced against book sales, although that's a pretty good idea—and sounds like a huge pain in the ass, so I wish you hadn't said it. In general it appears that being a well-known writer with a big following does help, but it's not decisive. You've probably looked at our table of Top 25 Sales v1/v2 Combined, and while some of our bigger names are on there, others are probably less familiar.
  One other factor on this front is how difficult or easy it is to get the word out to a given writer's following. Sometimes the writer him/herself can do that easily, sometimes it's more complicated—and while we certainly put a lot of effort into getting the word out, we only have so much ability to let any specific writer's fan base know what's up.

  Q. Let's talk truth and fiction for a little while: Your initial hypothesis, "Narrative transforms insignificant objects into significant ones," doesn't necessitate using fiction, but you've only used fictional stories. Would you ever do a series of objects with true stories? Perhaps recruiting a flight of non-fiction writers and letting them either interview the garage-sale maven or recount their acquisition of one of the initially insignificant objects?
  A. I've thought about this a little bit, although not in precisely this way. By deciding to use objects from thrift stores and yard sales, we were intentionally using things whose "real" story was basically lost. Although I suppose at yard sales it would be possible to get the story of the object in that person's life. Which of course would conclude, rather sadly, with the person unloading the object for a quarter (or "best offer"). Well, I suppose it would all be in the execution. All I can say is that I do think that if we continue to do this project, we probably need to get more and more expansive about the nature of the "narrative"—but somehow do that without getting gimmicky. Anyway you've given something to think about here that sounds more fun than cross-matching our sales-figures book data. So, I'll keep you posted.

  Q. More truth and fiction: How important was it that you made clear to the buyer that the story was fictional? Do you think believing the story was true would have changed the value, or was it more of an ethical consideration?
  A. It was crucial. We didn't want to do anything that seemed like a hoax or a prank. One critique of the project was that we could have made more money if we hadn't had a disclaimer, and claimed that the objects belonged to Paris Hilton or somesuch. And yes, that probably would have made more money. But what would that prove? That it's possible to soak people for maximum dough by lying to them? Is that an interesting insight? I don't think so.

  Q. What made you decide to donate the proceeds from parts two and three to charity?
  A. Once we'd done the 100 objects we really felt like we'd proved our point—but we didn't want to stop. We were having fun, we felt like we had an audience that was having fun. So, we thought we'd take the results of our experiment and try to act on them in a useful way—giving the Significance Premium to a cause. In v1 the money went to the individual writer, and a couple announced on their own blogs etc. that they would give that to charity, so maybe we stole the idea from them. For the purposes of the original experiment, we didn't want to provide, from us at least, that "Do it for a cause" rationale to bidders, because that might skew the results. But we stopped worrying about that for v2 and v3, and actually our v2 average prices were a bit higher than for v1, so maybe the Charity Effect is real?

  Q. Clearly there's a connection between Josh's book, your book and the S.O. project. Did the results of the project challenge anything in your books or reinforce your hypotheses?
  A. I don't think they contradicted what either of us were saying in the earlier books. I also am not sure I can argue with a straight face that the results reinforced it, either—but I'll try. The essays in Taking Things Seriously certainly underscore the link between personal narrative and value. And that's a theme of Buying In, which also, I suppose, deals with the way the made-up narratives of marketing also affect value, and intertwine with personal narratives. So, on some level, S.O. did take that to the logical extreme to see what would happen.
  That said, I do think the nature of S.O. does make these previously worthless things more valuable in a real way. This goes back to "the story of the project." We often sell things that could be bought in an identical version on eBay (or elsewhere) for less money. But I think ours really are worth more—there are tons of Halston mugs and Sanka ashtrays around, but only ONE of each of those things was part of our project. The one we sell is always, in effect, one of a kind. Even if there are others just like it.

  Q. Do you have any advice for advertisers in terms of the value of narrative?
  A. I'm not sure I've ever spoken to anyone at any ad agency who didn't already think what they were doing was totally exemplary (except in certain cases where they were GOING TO do something totally exemplary, but the client wouldn't let them). Therefore, I do not have any advice for advertisers.