The Endless, and Expensive, Quest for Rare Objects

From Pappy Van Winkle to Pokémon Go, merchants exploit our often irrational desire for unusual possessions and experiences.From Pappy Van Winkle to Pokémon Go, merchants exploit our often irrational desire for unusual possessions and experiences. Credit Photograph by Olivia Harris / Getty

A few months ago, I was invited to speak at a small marketing conference in Chicago. To attract attendees, its organizer promised everyone a one-ounce pour—a sip, more or less—of a cult bourbon called Pappy Van Winkle. Pappy, as it is known to its fans, is so sought after that it’s nearly impossible to find, and, a few days before the conference, word came that the Pappy supplier had fallen through. Luckily, I happened to walk into a Greenwich Village liquor store where two bottles had just arrived. “They’ll be gone by tomorrow,” the clerk said, before naming his price: thirty-five hundred dollars for the pair. I left with both bottles in a brown paper bag (after, of course, determining that the conference organizers would reimburse me.)

There’s a reason bourbon drinkers love Pappy. While most high-quality bourbon sits in a barrel for between eight and twelve years, Pappy ages for as much as twenty-three years. A bottle of top-shelf twelve-year-old bourbon sells for around a hundred dollars. Since the bourbon has aged for twice as long, two hundred and forty nine dollars, the list price for a bottle of Pappy twenty-three-year, doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.

But few people manage to buy Pappy at its list price. Unlike Jim Beam, which releases seven million barrels of bourbon each year, the Van Winkle family releases only seven thousand. The demand for Pappy is so high that most bottles are bought by resellers. On the resale market, bottles of Pappy twenty-three-year go for as much as four thousand dollars apiece—sixteen times their list price. That extraordinary markup presents a mystery for economists. Pappy Van Winkle isn’t sixteen times better than its competitors. Instead, the bourbon’s rarity seems, in itself, to be a source of its value. That is less surprising to psychologists, who have long known that rarity can be a source of well-being for those who consume rare products. Rarity elevates a product or experience by turning its consumption into a notable event. It’s through such notable events that one life is distinguished from another; in fact, in an informal way, you might quantify your well-being as the sum total of notable events you experience across time. As a result, consumers are willing to pay a lot for rarity.

Rarity isn’t all about social signalling, though. Pappy’s rarity also makes the bourbon taste better, since people often consume rare products in an especially deliberate way. Precisely because they know rare experiences are scarce, they slow down and savor them, revealing layers of pleasure that might go unnoticed otherwise. After I spoke at the conference in Chicago, the organizer handed me a glass containing two ounces of Pappy twenty-year, and I sat alone in a corner and sipped the bourbon very slowly. Inspired by its rarity, I extracted extra pleasure from a mundane act that I’ve performed many times before. It helped, obviously, that the bourbon was excellent to begin with, but who knows—by savoring a lesser bourbon, I might have increased its value, too. Rarity isn’t essential to savoring, but it does nudge you toward mindfulness when you might otherwise consume mindlessly.

Most people, of course, would never even consider paying four thousand dollars for a bottle of bourbon, which might suggest that they’re impervious to the allure of rarity. This would be a mistake. Many individuals who are unwilling to spend money on rarity instead use their smartphones to invest inordinate amounts of time pursuing it. Earlier this year, the video-game company Niantic released Pokémon Go to mixed reviews. Gameblog, in France, called it “amazing,” but the Guardian decided it was “not good.” The Jimquisition  summed up the game’s contradictions perfectly: “Despite being a pedestrian and uninspiring experience, it’s still conquered the hearts and minds of millions.” Despite its flaws, the game has attracted millions of players who spend days and weeks chasing rare Pokémon characters.

The basic rules of Pokémon Go are simple. Players create an avatar who roams a map mirroring the real world. If you’re walking up Fifth Avenue, your avatar matches your steps along a virtual Fifth Avenue. This “augmented reality” world contains cartoon creatures called Pokémon. If you’re on land, you’ll come across land-based Pokémon; near water you’ll find water-based characters. The aim is to capture creatures by flicking a virtual ball in their direction, and to defeat other players in battle. While some characters are plentiful—a bird called Pidgey seems to be everywhere—others are very rare. These are the Pappy Van Winkles of the Pokémon Go universe. At seven-forty-five in the evening on July 16th, a rare character called a Vaporeon appeared in Central Park. One video captured the stampede. “Look at this,” a man says off camera as he films hundreds of people moving through the darkness with their smartphones raised high. “There’s a Vaporeon that spawned right there, so everyone’s running.” Traffic stops, and one man appears to abandon his car as he rushes toward the Vaporeon. This isn’t an isolated incident; hordes of players have swamped areas of Boston, Des Moines, and a library in Utah.

Just as bourbon drinkers will spend thousands of dollars on Pappy, Pokémon players will spend thousands of hours chasing rare characters. One in six users play the game for more than four hours  per day;   ordinary players now spend an average of thirty-three minutes on the game each day, which far exceeds the average time spent on Facebook (twenty-two minutes), Snapchat (eighteen minutes), or Twitter (seventeen minutes). Some will also spend thousands of dollars; the game is free to download, but Niantic has made up to $1.6 million per day from players who pay for items that help them catch Pokémon characters. There are now more daily players than daily Twitter users. In the cosmic marketplace, where time is money, Pokémon players don’t seem to mind overspending on rarity.

In part, Pokémon Go is a trap. Once you begin playing, you develop a sense of commitment to the enterprise. At first, it’s thrilling to catch any character, but, as with any drug, players develop a tolerance; the only way to enjoy a hit is to spend tens or hundreds of hours searching for the next Vaporeon. Meanwhile, even as catching rare characters increases your chances of winning battles against other players, it also engages the relentless machinery of social comparison. Just like Pappy owners who boast about the hunt, Pokémon Go players fit into a hierarchy based on the characters they’ve collected. Many newly minted millionaires feel poor because they focus their attention on wealthier multimillionaires. Similarly, Pokémon players who collect one rare character might focus on the players who have collected many. The game dangles a goal—“Gotta catch ’em all!”—that’s both deeply motivating and almost impossible to achieve.

And thus, the rarity conundrum: it adds value but also sets the trap. On the one hand, many rare experiences actually are more enjoyable; we’re not totally crazy when we decide to pay more for them. On the other hand, our intuitions about rarity are easily exploited. It’s up to us to decide whether we’re pursuing rarity as enrichment or rarity as a lure. Perhaps the best way to decide is to ask yourself why, exactly, you’re pursuing something scarce. If rarity gives you an excuse to tell stories and to savor experiences—as it might for bourbon drinkers who land a sip of Pappy or friends who embark on an epic adventure to ensnare a Vaporeon in Central Park—then, on balance, it’s probably a good thing. But if it strips you of money and time while driving a wedge between you and other people—if it’s all about social hierarchy—then you’re probably better off without it. An abundant, cheaper alternative, enjoyed in the right way, will likely bring you more happiness.

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