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Generic Products Lower Users’ Self-Worth

New research finds using bargain-brand products may deflate your self-image.
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Consumers purchase generic products for a simple reason: They cost less than their brand-name equivalents. But newly published research from Taiwan suggests shoppers who opt for store-brand items may pay a hidden price.

Their credit card bills may be lower, but so is their self-esteem.

"Even incidentally used cheaper, generic products have the ironic consequence of harming one's self-image via a sense of worthlessness," Yin-Hsien Chao and Wen-Bin Chiou report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. They found this dampening of self-esteem has potentially negative consequences in the realms of both money and romance.

Expanding on the seminal work of York University marketing professor Russell Belk, who noted in 1988 that people "use possessions to extend, expand and strengthen their sense of self," Chao and Chiou decided to explore whether the use of generic products sends "a negative signal to the self." The researchers, based at the Institute of Education at National Sun Yat-Sen University, conducted two experiments.

In the first, 68 college seniors gathered in a campus laboratory and completed a two-page personal résumé. It included the monthly salary they expected to receive upon graduation, based on their skills and experience.

At the outset, all were informed that the lab "has just replaced the keyboards and mouses with new ones." Half were told that, due to budgetary restraints, the replacements were generics, while the others were told they were brand-name products.

"Participants under the generic-accessories condition expected a lower monthly salary than did participants under the genuine-accessories condition," the researchers report. They add that this association held true for both genders, and for students studying science, engineering, business and the social sciences.

The second experiment featured 96 males, who were told they were participating in a study of romantic attraction. They chose a potential partner from a database of eligible women and were instructed to introduce themselves in a five-minute phone conversation.

Each was handed a mobile phone, which contained a dead battery. Half were given a generic battery as a replacement (with the experimenter explaining he was constrained by budget cuts), while the other half were provided a brand-name battery. After the short conversation, "each participant was asked to indicate to what extent the target partner would have been impressed by him."

The results: Those who used the generic battery "thought the partner would consider them less attractive" than those who used the brand-name battery. "The generic accessory led to unfavorable evaluations of one's interpersonal attractiveness," the researchers conclude.

Chao and Chiou concede that, for some consumers, purchasing generic products could conceivably enhance self-esteem by confirming their belief that they're savvy shoppers. (These people may have a point: A recent British study found generic breakfast cereals cost less and are more nutritious.)

Also, it's worth noting that in these experiments, the use of a generic product was both involuntary and public. The results may or may not hold true for someone who makes the choice himself, and does so in a private setting.

Nevertheless, it's striking that in these experiments, using a non-brand-name item for a just few minutes had a measurable negative impact. This suggests "we should not overlook the possible backlash of using generic products," the researchers warn.

So the next time you're at the supermarket, and you pick up that box of store-brand corn flakes, take the the time to ask: What am I telling myself with this purchase? Is it "I'm a smart shopper?" or "I'm a loser?"

If it's the latter, you might want to put it down and reach for the Kellogg's.