The power of the free T-shirt

The proud moment when the author, shown with son, caught a cheaply made T-shirt at a Timberwolves game. He gave it to a kid nearby.

A few weeks ago, at a Minnesota Timberwolves “Turn Back the Clock Night”, we got a free fanny pack, emblazoned with the old Timberwolves logo.

We don’t wear fanny packs, let alone a Minnesota Timberwolves fanny pack; nobody does. So the next stop after getting one should’ve been the rubbish barrel at Target Center. But there it sits in the den, waiting for a use.

If your home is like mine, it’s got swag stashed everywhere, worthless trinkets with logos and ads.

What’s the attraction of this stuff? The New York Times has the answer in a profile of another tradition that takes place on game nights: free T-shirts (I’ve got some of those, too, but I usually give them to kids when I catch them).

The power of “free” cannot be understated.

One famous series of studies — repeated, modified and critiqued in equal measure — has been dubbed “the Hershey’s Kiss experiments.” Dan Ariely, a professor at the Duke Fuqua School of Business and a nimble behavioral economist, gave subjects a choice of two chocolates. They could buy premium Lindt truffles (which usually cost around 50 cents apiece) for 26 cents each, or they could buy the beloved but mundane Hershey’s Kiss for a penny. In the outcome of this study, participants were equally split between the two chocolates. Fair enough.

Then Ariely reduced the price of each chocolate by one cent. The Lindt was now 25 cents; the Hershey’s Kiss was free. What happened? Tastes changed dramatically. A full 90 percent of respondents opted for the Hershey’s. At first blush this makes no sense. The price differential was the same — still 25 cents more for the Lindt. Why would demand change so drastically? As Ariely later put it, the power that zero “exercises over people’s choice in chocolate nicely demonstrates the irrational draw of free things.”

“When we get something for nothing, we feel as if we’re putting one over on the world,” writer L. Jon Wertheim says. “Except that often it’s just the opposite.”

Stick that in your fanny pack.