Wondering how to convince your customers to buy what you’re selling? The key may lie in making them feel you’ve got something special that will metaphorically rub off on them. That’s the conclusion of a new study about why people buy celebrities’ possessions.

"Celebrity items often have little functional value,” said George Newman, a professor at Yale University, who conducted the research. “And because the objects themselves tend to be relatively common artifacts (clothing, furniture, etc.) they are often physically indistinguishable from a number of seemingly identical products in the marketplace."

The authors researched potential explanations for the phenomenon, delving into the concept of "contagion," the belief that a person's immaterial qualities or essence can be transferred onto an object through physical contact. "We were curious to examine the degree to which contagion beliefs may account for the valuation of celebrity items," the authors said.

In their first study, the authors asked participants how much they would like to own celebrity and non-celebrity possessions. They asked about highly regarded individuals (such as George Clooney) or despised individuals (such as Saddam Hussein).

The researchers measured the dimensions of contagion, perceived market value and the general public fondness for the individual.

"For well-liked celebrities, the primary explanation seemed to be contagion—participants expressed a desire to own some of the individual's actual physical remnants," the authors said. In contrast, when the items had belonged to a despised individual, people perceived that the items were potentially valuable to others, but the fact that the item had been owned by hated individuals decreased the items' value.

In a second experiment, participants reported their willingness to purchase a sweater owned by someone famous (who was either well-liked or despised). However, in this case, the sweater was "transformed" by sterilization which would, theoretically, make it less desirable and less valuable. For well-liked celebrities, the so-called sterilizing reduced participants' willingness to purchase the sweater, while preventing the resale of the item had a comparably minimal effect. "In contrast, for despised individuals, the pattern was the opposite: removing contact only increased the sweater's value while preventing the sale to others significantly reduced participants' willingness to purchase it," the authors conclude.

Other researchers who participated in the study included Gil Diesendruck of Bar-Ilan University and Paul Bloom of Yale University. Their research appears in the current issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.