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Nicely wrapped gifts heighten expectations

Colorful wrapping and bows on gifts

Bob Moon: When Julie Andrews sang these words all those years ago, who knew she was actually delivering those kids from "The Sound of Music" a lesson in psychology?

Julie Andrews: Brown packages tied up with strings. These are a few of my favorite things.

Now, there's some real science that helps explain that sentiment: Seems test subjects who got presents tied up in brown paper were actually happier than they were with flashy packaging. And you might just want to skip the wrapping altogether.

That's the conclusion of marketing professor Nathan Novemsky, at Yale University's Center for Customer Insights. Welcome to the program.

Nathan Novemsky: Thank you Bob.

Moon: Take the wraps off your survey for us. How was it conducted and what did you find?

Novemsky: So we were very interested in this question of how gift wrapping influences peoples reactions to gifts -- how much they like them. And also their willingness to reciprocate to the gift giver. I've had this experience some time ago -- giving my wife gifts -- where I would try to go the extra mile -- get the fancy bow and the nice wrapping -- every time I gave her something. And I'd notice a little ting in her eye when she would open the gift that almost suggested she was a little disappointed sometimes. So that encouraged us to run a few studies to give people gifts and see how they reacted to the same gift -- depending on how it was wrapped. And one of the interesting findings was that if you wrap a gift, you raised peoples expectations and the liking of the same gift goes down. If you wrap a gift that, you know, is really just meant to be a little something, it might behoove you not to wrap it -- or if you are going to wrap it, to not wrap it so nicely.

Moon: Now we're not just talking about the kind of wrapping paper, we're talking about not wrapping a gift at all to keep expectations lower.

Novemsky: That's right. Because you can imagine that -- especially as a gift that's wrapped sits under the Christmas tree for, you know, days or weeks, for example -- you start to imagine what's in there and you get pretty expectations. And when Christmas finally comes or the time comes to finally open that wrapping, you're imagining something great. Where as if I just say, "Here is something for you" and hand you something that you can immediately see, there's no chance for those expectations to creep up.

Moon: Now what if the gift is ambiguous, if we don't know whether it's going to be a big hit or not.

Novemsky: Very good question Bob. So, it turns out there's a big difference between things that we know what they are and things that we don't. So if I give you a Harry Potter DVD, you know exactly what that is and you have some liking for it. If I give you a pair of earings, you don't really know if they're really nice earings, or if they're OK earings, or if they're, you know, cubic zirconia fake diamond earings. And so in those cases, when the thing is ambiguous, wrapping might actually do the thing you might want it to do -- which is very nice wrapping might signal to people "Aw, this is a good gift."

Moon: Does this say anything about the bigger picture of advertising. I mean, we always hear: it's all in the packaging.

Novemsky: You can take this way beyond gift giving to all kinds of things, right? You know, the packaging on a gift or even a fancy glass of champagne that a nice restaurant gives you for free before you start the meal. Any of these things can have the same ironic effect. If you're setting expectations high and you're not delivering on them, you're going to be worse off than if you hadn't tried to set expectations at all.

Moon: So, if you're a hotel, for example, you don't want to spruce up the outside of the building or the lobby if you're not sprucing up the rooms?

Novemsky: We tend to have this idea in our heads -- that we get from our culture and from a lot places -- that wrapping universally is a good thing and better wrapping is better than less good wrapping. So I think in general I would tell people to dial down the amount of effort, the amount of time, the amount of expense you're willing put into gift wrapping because it's not really making people happier and more willing to reciprocate.

Moon: Nathan Novemsky is a professor of marketing at the Yale School of Management. I hope you get lots of great gifts this year.

Novemsky: Thank you Bob. And unwrapped if I'm lucky.

About the author

Bob Moon is Marketplace’s senior business correspondent, based in Los Angeles.

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