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Give till it helps

The wrapping counts too

December 24, 2007|Karen Ravn | Special to The Times

Is that ugly sweater you get from Aunt Millie any less ugly because she wraps it up in pretty paper with a nice big bow? Of course not -- but you'll probably like it a little better (or at least hate it less).

This and more we know from a classic study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology titled "Gift-Wrapping Effects on Product Attitudes" conducted by Daniel Howard, professor of marketing at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. His question: "Does gift-wrapping an item have a favorable influence on attitudes toward owning the item?"

In one experiment, 45 university students were asked to evaluate four products. They thought that was what they were there for, but that was just a ruse -- they were really there to evaluate the thank-you gift they would get for evaluating the four products.

The gift was a sheepskin bicycle cover. Half of the subjects received it unwrapped, in the manufacturer's plastic bag. The other half received it tastefully wrapped in blue-and-white paper with matching ribbon and bow. Subjects rated it on three nine-point scales -- from undesirable to desirable, from bad to good and from foolish to wise.

On average, subjects who received the gift wrapped thought it was cooler than subjects who received it unwrapped (rating it 7.14 versus 6.06).

In a second, similar experiment, 82 other university students received the gift either wrapped or unwrapped. But this time, some thought the gift was meant for them and others that it was meant for someone else.

Subjects who thought the gift was for them were happier with the gift when it was wrapped. But if they thought the gift was for someone else, they couldn't care less if it was wrapped up nicely or not.

In a third experiment, 60 more university students were presented with wrapped, unwrapped or "nontraditionally wrapped" gifts -- in brown packaging paper with no ribbon nor bow.

The nicely wrapped gift was favored most, the unwrapped gift favored least. Even brown paper, it seemed, was preferred to no wrapping at all -- a fact that should give hope to wrapping klutzes everywhere.

Why does wrapping paper matter? Perhaps because it reminds us of happy times when we received pretty presents -- especially the birthdays and Christmases of our childhood, Howard says. He says that gift recipients may very well value the time and effort gift givers put into wrapping, although his study was not designed to test that intuition.

Howard's study, conducted back in 1992, still remains a standout in the (admittedly not very active) field of gift-wrapping research. To Howard's knowledge, no follow-up studies testing other wrapping-related issues have been done. So scientists can't yet say if shiny foil paper is more tantalizing than regular paper, or satin ribbon makes a better impression than that crinkly, curly kind.

Howard, meanwhile, has taken the fruits of his labor to heart.

"I never give a gift without wrapping it," he says. "I used to, before the study, but now I never do."

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