Rob Walker | Essays

Imitation of Life

Spend enough time looking at design and new-product Web sites, with their endless cavalcades of aesthetically appealing objects, and it’s easy to spot recurring themes. One of the most interesting is things that look like other things: a vase that looks like a paper bag, a tape dispenser that looks like a cassette, a drink coaster that looks like a chocolate bar, even bars of soap that look like tiny hands.

The “handsoaps,” sold by Marie Gardeski under the brand name Foliage, have been a particular favorite. Gardeski, who lives in Fort Wayne, Ind., has sold thousands of them over the past year or so — either in bundles of a dozen or so little soaps in tasteful net bags or sets of two larger-size soaps. Originally she learned how to make soap, and in particular soap in the shape of doll-like hands, for an art project while in graduate school at the Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit. She made hundreds and displayed them en masse, with the idea that they collectively constituted a one-of-a-kind piece. When she was no longer displaying her work, she explains, she “didn’t know where to store all these little hands,” so she started leaving them on friends’ sinks and in public places. The positive reaction led her to create an online store using a service called Shopify.com. A growing number of customers saw the appeal as Gardeski describes it: “the little bit of creepiness, mixed with the cute, sort-of-innocent doll hands, in these lovely fleshy colors,” she says. “That contrast.”

That contrast is embedded in things that look like other things, and its curious appeal suggests something about one of the great conundrums of consumer behavior, or possibly even of human psychology: our attraction to the novel and our seemingly contradictory attraction to the familiar.

A compelling case for the “power of novelty” has been made by Gregory Berns, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Emory University School of Medicine, in his book, “Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment.” For instance, in an experiment he recounts in which subjects were rigged up to receive alternating drops of regular water and a sweetness-spiked liquid, brain scans showed more evidence of experiencing pleasure when the sweet stuff was delivered at unpredictable intervals — underscoring the importance of surprise. He goes on to separate pleasure (which can be worn down by familiarity, as when you eat a favorite food over and over) from a more lasting sense of well-being that depends in part on acquiring new knowledge and new experiences or even on tackling new challenges. “I have come to understand novelty as the one thing that we all want,” Berns writes.

On the other hand, there’s also evidence that we are attracted to the familiar. Probably the most famous study along these lines is by Robert Zajonc, the social psychologist, published in a 1968 issue of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Subjects in Zajonc’s experiments were shown a series of random shapes, very quickly — so quickly they were unaware that some of the shapes were repeated. Even so, when they were later asked to rate particular shapes, the ones they liked best were the ones they’d been exposed to most often — even though they didn’t consciously remember seeing them more often. Some psychologists speculate that “the exposure effect” explains at least one aspect of celebrity lust: a face that might not turn heads on the street becomes more attractive the more we see it. Or consider the opposite of a culinary adventure: comfort food.

In its modest way, Gardeski’s handsoaps — and things that look like other things — play to both of these tendencies at once through the double take that comes with spotting a familiar thing that turns out to be wholly unfamiliar. But while lots of things that look like other things pop up online, far fewer of them seem to take off with consumers. Even the early reactions to the handsoaps came from the creeped-out, she says: they said, “They’re awful, I would never want them.” Yet the more the handsoaps were highlighted online, the more they sold — and the more they were highlighted elsewhere. Gardeski has even started selling wholesale to a number of stores and has considered working out a deal to make the product on a scale greater than what she can handle on her own. Perhaps the weirdness factor — amplified by the fact that it involved a human body part — caught attention, but people had to see the soaps a few times before their attraction became strong enough to make a purchase. First Gardeski made something familiar into something novel; then her novelty became familiar.

This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, January 13, 2008.  

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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