Sunday, October 5, 2008

IgNobel prizes

This year's Ignobel prize in medicine went to economist Dan Ariely from Duke, for a study (published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) showing that the announced price of a placebo painkiller affects its pain reducing capabilities.

My surprise here is that in fact there is a whole literature that dates back at least a couple of decades demonstrating this and related points. You can find one (gated) publication from the early 1980s here. That study, which Lester Telser mentioned in class when I was a graduate student at Chicago, shows in a double-blind clinical trial that branded aspirin works better than unbranded aspirin which works better than a branded placebo which works better than an unbranded placebo.

This line of work has very important implications for the economics of advertising, particularly the welfare economics of advertising. When I was in graduate school this literature had a bit of a moral flavor, with "informative" advertising (the classifieds being the usual example) viewed as valuable information transmission and "image" advertising (think Coke or Bud Light ads) serving no useful purpose. But if image advertising, which works to build up brand recognition and capital, actually changes the utility derived from a product, then it is essentially part of the product and so quite valuable rather than merely some sort of necessary evil.

The actual economics Ignobel prize went to "Geoffrey Miller, Joshua Tybur and Brent Jordan of the University of New Mexico, USA, for discovering that a professional lap dancer's ovulatory cycle affects her tip earnings." A gated version of the paper is here.

I should mention too, that while Michigan economics has no Noble prize winners, it does have one Ignoble prize winner, namely my colleague Joel Slemrod, who won in 2001 for his work (co-authored with Wojciech Kopczuk) on the elasticity of death with respect to taxes. A gated version of the paper is here.

Oh, and one really cannot leave out the Swiss winning the peace prize for this. Better yet, someone from the Swiss plant ethics committee actually attended the Ignoble prize ceremony.

Hat tip: Greg Mankiw