What Is It About 'It' Gifts?

With just a few hours of Christmas shopping left, many parents have given up on finding a Zhu Zhu hamster — while kids across the country still desperately hope to get one. Jonah Berger, a professor at Wharton School of Business, explains what's behind the annual rush for the "it" gift.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

On this Christmas Eve, there are parents with children of a certain age who can hear the clock ticking from store to store, mall to mall. They frantically hunt for this year's most sought-after gift, the cute and cuddly Zhu Zhu hamster, and no mockery please. You perhaps might remember when you knocked someone over to get your hands on that Wii or camped out in the cold to buy a Tickle-Me Elmo.

Many parents go to great lengths to see their little ones eyes light up. But how does a particularly fuzzy toy or shiny scooter end up as the It gift of the season?

Marketing Professor Jonah Berger joins us in just a moment. But first, fess up: How far have you gone to get your hands on the It gift. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site, that's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Jonah Berger is a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business and joins us today from Audio Post in Philadelphia. Thanks very much for being on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professor JONAH BERGER (Marketing, University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business): Thanks for having me, Neal.

CONAN: And it is indeed the goal of every toy manufacturer and every toy designer to come up with that present that is sought after millions that Christmas.

Prof. BERGER: Indeed, you know, I think any company or any brand wants their toy to be the It toy and they spend a lot of money and effort trying to figure out how to make it happen.

CONAN: And how does it happen?

Prof. BERGER: It's funny. I mean, I think when we think about gifts, we think that that is the only gift that could have been popular this year. This year, it's a hamster. A couple of years ago it was the Tickle-Me Elmo. And if we look at that gift we say, you know, that's the only one, that's the one we have to have. We spend hours camped outside a store to get it. But interestingly enough it doesn't necessarily have to be that way. Consumer behavior is - it's not independent, it's very much interdependent.

CONAN: Hmm.

Prof. BERGER: We do what other people do. And so, if one gift gets a little bit ahead it may not have to do so much with the gift itself but more about consumer behavior and our herd instincts.

CONAN: And your argument is indeed it's not the request from the children who say, Daddy I have to have the Zhu Zhu. It is, in fact, our fellow parents and those people we talk to.

Prof. BERGER: Yeah, I mean, a little bit like that. It's also the kids themselves though. It's not so much, you know, at the beginning of this year had to be the Zhu Zhu. There's something about the Zhu Zhu that, you know, that's the particular toy and it couldn't have been anything else. It's more about social dynamics. What kids talk about depends on what other kids talk about. What parents talk about depends on what other parents are talking about. And so, if one gift or one toy gets a little bit ahead and starts being talked about a little bit more, other people are going to hear that and notice it and talk about it more. And suddenly that may get a big cumulative advantage among the other toys and end up being the It gift when really it could have just as easily being Tickle-Me Grover.

CONAN: Could've been Tickle-Me Grover. So, in other words, when we gather around the water cooler to talk about things, we don't about obscure things. We talk about things we think other people are likely to know about: the weather, how about those Phillies, that sort of thing.

Prof. BERGER: Yeah, I mean, you know, on Monday morning when we get - we want to be the one that talks about something everyone else knows about. We don't want to bring about some obscure topic that everyone looks at us quizzically and has no idea. So, we talk about celebrities. We talk about the weather. We talk about sport teams. And when it comes to gifts, we talk about things that other people are likely to have heard about, you know. If we think other people heard about the Wii and not some obscure, you know, Swedish toy that we might have been thinking about getting�

CONAN: Hey, hey, wait a minute, those wooden trains, those BRIO trains, they're very good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BERGER: The BRIO trains are very good. And that's the interesting thing, right? We think oh, it's about quality. Certain toys just have better qualities than others and yeah, quality matters a little bit but not as much as you might think.

CONAN: So, when toy manufacturers are going into this, don't they know this too?

Prof. BERGER: I think they do and that's why, you know, they try to get on the list of the It gifts. So they try to get ahead of time with stores to be on good place in shelves. You know, I think this process is very analogous to what happens in the fashion industry where every season there's a particular color. And why is one season fuchsia and the next season orange? Well, you know, a couple of people get together early and they try to make that the season's color. And whether they succeed or not though is a different question.

CONAN: It's interesting. You cite a study that worked on this psychology. It had to do not with toys but with music.

Prof. BERGER: Yeah, this is - this is a great, great study and I think for decades we've known that social influence leads to conformity. People do what other people do. But they did a very interesting twist on this experiment. They had people come and listen to different songs. And they could download whatever songs they want and this was up on a Web site. But what they did as they split people onto different social worlds.

So, some people listen to songs that other people had liked but which songs they listened to depended on who had come before them. And so, everybody followed the people that came before them. But the different people who came before them were different. And what ended up in these different worlds were very different outcomes. In one world, one song was very popular, whereas in another world, an entirely different song was popular. And the song that was first in one world might have been last in the other world. And what does that show? Well, it shows that quality matters a little bit, but not as much as you might think. Really, it's social influence or following others that leads to this interesting collective outcomes.

CONAN: So, you have to develop an air of inevitability partly, I guess, by advertising, partly by getting placement in - and talked about in newspaper columns and that sort of thing, in the days when I guess people read newspaper columns.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BERGER: Yeah. And it's also just a little bit of luck. You know, I mean, if I was a toy manufacturer, I'd hate to hear that, right? I want to engineer success, but there is a little bit of luck in this process.

CONAN: We're talking with Jonah Berger, who is a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania about the It toy, and we want to know what you have done in the past to obtain that illusive goal and bring home the gift for your child - 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. And Evelyn's on the line, calling from Denver.

EVELYN (Caller): Hi, there. I used to work in the Kmart toy department when I was a teenager. And one Christmas Eve, about five minutes before closing, where I'm literally standing up on the shelves, on the phone trying to say, yeah, my department's clear. What I'm - I'm holding in my hand a naked Barbie doll, whose hair is just all array. And this woman comes up and says, give me that doll.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EVELYN: And I said what? Give me that doll. And I said, well, I don't have a package. She has no clothes. Give me that doll.

(Soundbite of laughter)

EVELYN: And then, not only - I mean, I gave her the doll, but then I got called to checkout to give a price on the naked Barbie. It was - so, I learned what other people would go through. And so I often would check my passion at the door when searching for Christmas presents just because I don't want to ever subject anyone else to the fear I had from that women.

CONAN: Have you - do you now have children of your own?

EVELYN: I don't. I had some kids I was close to, and I sometimes went to great lengths to find the right gifts, but I would occasionally say, you know what? If this is still popular three months from now, I'll get them a, you know, a spring present.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: OK. Evelyn, thanks very much for the call, and I gather you don't work at Kmart anymore.

EVELYN:: No, thank God.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: OK. Bye-bye. Merry Christmas to you.

EVELYN: Same to you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: Bye-bye.

Prof. BERGER: You know, Neal, I think Evelyn's point is an interesting one. I think, you know, parents very much feel that if they don't get their child that particular gift that the season's going to be over, it's going to be ruined, when really, it may not actually be the case.

CONAN: What do you mean that may not be the case? The child is going to break down in tears when they open their gifts and the Zhu Zhu was not there, or whatever it is.

Prof. BERGER: You know, I think - we think that's going to happen. But what's going to happen tomorrow or next week, you know, I think they're going to be very happy with the toy they end up getting, you know, as long as a least of couple other people have something similar.

CONAN: Let's next talk with Sherry(ph), Sherry with us Auburn in California.

SHERRY (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

SHERRY: Thanks for letting me be on the show.

CONAN: And what's your story about you did to get the It gift?

SHERRY: Oh, it's probably about in 1984. My daughter was about four or five, and the Cabbage Patches were, like, all the rage.

CONAN: Absolutely. You had to adopt them.

SHERRY: Exactly. And she not only just wanted a regular, she wanted a Preemie black boy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHERRY: So, I sent my husband out, and I said do not come home without one. And that's when they were listed in the newspaper. I think we ended up paying about $200 for him. And we - and she still has him today, and she's 30.

CONAN: She still has him today, though, so she's gotten her - well, that $200 today is worth, at least, $204.

SHERRY: Oh, she loves Avery.

CONAN: Avery is his name?

SHERRY: Avery is his name.

CONAN: Well, I'm sure that her adoption papers are also up to date.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHERRY: I think you'd do just about anything for those cute little faces.

CONAN: Especially at the age of four or five or six, don't you think?

SHERRY: Yeah. And I hear those hamsters really are the hot thing.

CONAN: And your children are now old enough that, well, you know, you can just get them, you know, a gift certificate at this point.

SHERRY: Oh, no, this year was the Tony Hawk Wii game.

CONAN: The Tony Hawk Wii game. Which goes - and thank you very much, Sherry, and we hope you and your children have a Merry Christmas. Which goes to the point, Jonah Berger, it's the Zhu Zhu hamster for a certain set. But there are all these sub-niches of It gifts.

Prof. BERGER: Yeah. I think we love to see this is as a children's phenomenon. Look at those funny kids. Look at those fads, you know, whether it's Pop Rocks or whatever those kids are doing this days. But the same thing happens with adults. You know, it's more expensive. It's - rather than $10, it's $100 or a $1,000, but it has to be the flat screen TV. We have to have that new iPod Touch, you know, the new iPhone 3GS. We have to have it. Otherwise, we're, you know, not going to be happy. And so the same thing happens, but you're very right. Among different demographics or different niches, it's a different gift. But the process is very similar.

CONAN: Let's go next to Liza, Liza with us from Weymouth in Massachusetts.

LIZA (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Liza.

LIZA: I'm sitting outside a Wal-Mart, as we speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIZA: My kids are inside searching for a Wii "Rock Band," which they were going to get last year for Christmas, but they were the It thing to have last year. So I figured this year, there would be plenty of them, and everyplace doesn't have them again.

CONAN: And you've got the children's scouring the different malls for the Wii "Rock Band."

LIZA: Well, we called, like, eight different places, and it's really hard to even get through to a store on Christmas Eve. But we finally decided...

CONAN: Well, let me put it this way, Liza. If you're at a store on Christmas Eve, would you answer the phone?

LIZA: No, probably not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LIZA: So, I don't know what they are doing. I've been listening to TALK OF THE NATION for about half an hour sitting outside here. So�

CONAN: Well, I�

LIZA: At least you're keeping me entertained.

CONAN: If it's going to be a gift for them, how come their shopping for it?

LIZA: Well, I've a little brother, too. So, and - 'cause somebody's got to sit in the car, because there is no place to park.

CONAN: Ah, that's the other problem. Well, we wish you the best of luck, and we congratulate you on your taste in radio.

LISA: Thank you.

CONAN: All right, Liza. Thanks for the call.

Here's an email that we have. This is from Scott in Sacramento. As a recycling specialist that visits material recovery facilities' dumps throughout the great state of California, I can tell you how all these It gifts end up. I have seen all the latest and greatest toys here. Merry Christmas. And he's up on the consumption, he says.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: And I guess that's a lesson we can all draw from that. We're talking with Jonah Berger, who wrote a piece for The Washington Post called �The Siren Song of Tickle Me Elmo.� He's a professor of marketing at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, coming to you from NPR News.

And next, we'll go to Corey, Corey from Minneapolis.

COREY (Caller): Hey, there. When I was about seven or eight, "Star Wars" was really big.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

COREY: And the It toy was that mechanical walking transport called the AT-AT, and that was what I wanted. Under the Christmas tree, there was a three-foot-tall, five-foot-long box. I was ecstatic. It couldn't have been anything else. And through incessant questioning of my father, practically grilling him, I got the idea that it was in there.

And finally, I got to open it up. I was just ripping it open. I started pulling out stuffing and packaging peanuts, and then a lamp shade and a couple of other things. And I thought, What's going on? Finally, at the bottom was a little model of an AT-AT, not the toy that I wanted. I was�

CONAN: Oh.

COREY: ...not heart broken. I was bummed for the moment. But it's given us so much humor and laughter, years and years afterwards.

CONAN: Has anybody ever told you you could put your eye out with that?

(Soundbite of laughter)

COREY: No, they didn't. But I think you're guest is right. Not getting the It toy may bum you out for a moment, but really, it wasn't so bad. And I was just glad to be there with my family. And it's given us a good story for all the other Christmases.

CONAN: Corey, I think you've gotten the most out of a gift you didn't get.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COREY: Definitely.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

COREY: You bet. Happy holidays.

CONAN: Happy holidays to you. And "A Christmas Story," the desire for that particular BB gun, I guess that's the ultimate expression for the It gift for that particular kid on that particular Christmas.

Prof. BERGER: Yeah. And I think the caller's story is a very interesting one, and it's important to remember what the holiday season is about. And the It gifts are great. And you want to try to find them for your kids. But it's really that experience of being with the ones you love and having time together that's important. And a year later from now, maybe they'll remember what they got, but the stories will definitely persist longer than that.

CONAN: Let's go this - next to Kate, Kate calling from Providence.

KATE (Caller): Hi. Happy holidays.

CONAN: And to you, Kate.

KATE: Well, I just wanted to relate my - we call them Zhu Zhu pets. My story about the Zhu Zhu pets started in October. My daughter wanted them for her birthday. And I couldn't find them anywhere. So, I said, OK, don't worry. You know, mommy will get it for you for Christmas. Well, low and behold, I did not realize how difficult this was going to be. But, I was able, through extensive Internet searching and networking with other moms, to order some from California.

CONAN: At the low, low price of only...

KATE: Probably the total I've spend now - OK, building up from that point, I've gotten more - has been about a $120.

CONAN: As opposed to the standard retail value of...

KATE: I think it's probably 80 for them, what I've gotten. But I�

CONAN: That's not ridiculous, you know.

KATE: No. But, you know, it turned into an obsession for me, where I think, well, I'm smarter than the other people. You know, I've got it in. Somehow, I can get this gift. And I think that's a part of it. You know, it's sort of the race. And I'm on eBay and I'm, you know, you're constantly - that's all it's on my mind.

CONAN: Is eBay a bargain?

KATE: Well, it's funny, if you watch the bidding, it has gone down to significantly in the last two or three days, I think, because of the shipping.

CONAN: Right.

KATE: But before that, it was through the roof, unbelievable.

CONAN: So it�

KATE: The bids - thousands of bids going and ridiculous pricing. The shipping alone is at least $10 on each item.

CONAN: So that social phenomenon you're talking about, Jonah Berger, perhaps sees its ultimate expression in week before Christmas on eBay.

KATE: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KATE: Well, and the funniest thing of all is my kids were staging Christmas. So, they're running downstairs and pretending to open up presents. So, I started - I said, well, hey, what did you get? You know, I'm hoping that my daughter will say I got the Zhu Zhu pets. And she says I got a "Calvin and Hobbes" book that I wanted.

CONAN: And you're sitting there saying, you never mentioned the "Calvin and Hobbes" book.

KATE: Right. And now I'm thinking: Should I go out and get that? But, you know, I have to - at some point, I have to stop and say, enough's enough.

CONAN: Enough is enough. Well, the "Calvin and Hobbes" book I can recommend. It's a very good book.

KATE: Oh, yes. We have many.

CONAN: Okay, thanks very much. And...

KATE: Okay.

CONAN: ...we hope your daughter has a fabulous Christmas morning.

KATE: Me, too. Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Jonah Berger, what are you hoping to find under your tree this - tomorrow morning?

Prof. BERGER: I actually celebrate Hanukkah. So I had eight days of wonderful, wonderful gifts to find. But I'm sure lots of people will find exciting gifts under their tree tomorrow.

CONAN: OK, and was one of the gifts one those day socks? Isn't that traditional?

Prof. BERGER: Didn't get any socks this year. But, you know, every year you can hope.

CONAN: Every year you can live in hope. Well, Jonah Berger, thank you very much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

Prof. BERGER: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: Jonah Berger is a professor of marketing at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton school of Business. His article in The Washington Post was called �The Siren Song of Tickle Me Elmo.�

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION SCIENCE FRIDAY. Merry Christmas. We'll be back with you again on Monday. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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