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Does Your Last Name Affect Your Buying Habits?

Researchers claim that people with names at the end of the alphabet respond more quickly to purchasing opportunities

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Can a letter in your name truly affect your purchasing habits? (courtesy of flickr user Leo Reynolds)

If you’ve never noticed my last name, just know that it begins with a Z. Some people might have found that annoying—Thomas Zych ran for president in 2004 on a platform of ending the “tyranny” of ordering things alphabetically—but I’ve always thought it rather convenient. I’ve never had to waste time finding my place in line. My name is always easy to find at the end of any list. And the line for voting is almost always shorter for those of us at the end of the alphabet.

So I read with some interest this study from the Journal of Consumer Research, titled “The Last Name Effect: How Last Name Influences Acquisition Timing.” In it, Kurt Carlson of Georgetown University and Jacqueline Conard of Belmont University test their theory that people who grow up with last names near the end of the alphabet have a very different experience from their classmates at the beginning. And as a result, those of us with names near the end become more opportunistic and respond more quickly to what the researchers term “acquisition opportunities”—direct-mail offers, replacing objects that have reached the end of their useful lives or adopting new technologies.

Carlson and Conard performed four experiments to test their theory—offering MBA students free tickets to a basketball game; asking a group of adults to participate in a survey in exchange for a chance to win $500; giving undergraduate and graduate students the opportunity to participate in a wine-choice study and receive $5 and a bottle of wine; and asking undergrads about the appeal of a discount when buying a needed backpack. In each case, the researchers looked at how quickly a person responded to the offer and compared it to where his or her last name (during childhood) could be found alphabetically. And they found a small effect each time, with people near the end of the alphabet responding to the offer a little more quickly than people at the beginning.

But I’m skeptical. I’m not an early adopter of new technologies, I take my time to research options before any big purchase and I rarely respond to direct mail (or e-mail) offers. I don’t seem to fit into this “last name effect” theory.

Then again, I never found that being a Z was all that onerous. And perhaps other people truly were affected by their placement in lines while growing up and that now has some effect on how they act when making a purchase.

But as Timothy Noah noted in Slate:

Carlson and Conard concede at the study’s end that they can’t really say whether the R-Zs’ quicker response to act-now-type marketing makes them smart shoppers or suckers. In the first and third experiments, it seems to me a toss-up as to whether the responders are acting on sincere priorities or merely demonstrating suggestibility as they rearrange plans to seize free basketball tickets and bottles of wine. The second and fourth experiments seem clearer cases of what economists call “maximizing utility.” I don’t know anyone who couldn’t use an extra $500; do you? And the hypothetical about the backpack assumes that the student really needs a new backpack, so unless he’s on his way to an exam or a first date with his future wife or a job interview with Goldman Sachs—and none of these are in the hypothetical—he’d be foolish to pass up the discount.

The big message in the study, however, is one to marketers (what else would you expect from a journal about consumers?). Carlson and Conard note that people at the end of the alphabet would make better targets for certain promotions and when marketers want to build a customer base quickly.

I suppose, then, that the big take-home message for me is that I can expect more junk mail.

About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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