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Freak Week: Value Judgments

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What's the value of a good story? It's a critical question for advertisers, and one Rob Walker has been pondering for a while. Last summer, the New York Times marketing columnist and author of Buying In decided to find out. He and a colleague, Joshua Glenn, launched the Significant Objects project -- an experiment in which they bought useless objects at garage sales, got authors to write brief stories about them, and then sold them on eBay. The stories, it seems, were everything -- at auction, the items tended to sell for hundreds of times their original sale price. AdFreak's Rebecca Cullers chatted with Walker last week about the project, now in its third phase. Walker says it was crucial that the items had no identifiable history, in order to test whether the stories were enough to create value. "We actually had one or two writers suggest they write about their own junk instead of ours," he says. "But it seemed like that would throw the whole experiment off-it becomes about memorabilia. ... This stuff has no actual significance; all significance is purely made up." In round one of the experiment, Nicholson Baker wrote just 25 words about a meat thermometer: "Everything had a temperature in those days. Cheese was cold. Avocados were warm. My heart was a piece of hot meat pierced by love's thermometer." Those four sentences boosted that item's value from 75 cents to $51. For the most recent item up for sale -- a tiny jar of mayonnaise -- Rick Moody wrote 600 words. Walker says it's critical that buyers know the stories are fictional -- purely bogus. "One critique of the project," he says, "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. ... 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." The project obviously imparts meta value to the items, too, as the authors' stories aren't the only tales being told. "To people who like the concept," says Walker, "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." Walker and Glenn feel they've proven that stories create value even for the junkiest objects, but they've continued the project for fun. Asked if they would try to evolve the series by delving into nonfiction stories, Walker replied: "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'). ... I suppose it would all be in the execution." Read the full interview.

Best of BrandFreak: Burger King sponsors error messages

Burger King: always innovating. Two weeks ago, AdFreak sister blog BrandFreak reported on a curious BK effort from Brazil, in which the burger chain surreptitiously photographed patrons while they stood in line -- and then printed each person's photo on his or her Whopper wrapper, to further personalize the "Have it your way" experience. Last week came another unorthodox BK initiative, which you might call "error marketing." BrandFreak revealed that BK is set to sponsor error messages on the popular link-sharing site Digg.com. For example, if a user were to type in a nonsense word like "byrwe," a message will read, "No results for 'byrwe' were found. Looks like your search had a typo." The message would then blame the typo on your "tiny hands," a reference to the long-running BK TV campaign with the guy who has tiny hands. "The beefy $1 Burger King Double Cheeseburger gives tiny hands some trouble, too," the Digg message will read. The effort could be criticized as just another example of marketing saturation, but it's such an unexpected venue that it will probably give Digg a chuckle.