In today’s New York Times, Janet Maslin demolishes two books in one review– Chris Anderson’s Free and Ellen Ruppel Shell’s Cheap. Here’s an excerpt:
Consider Ellen Ruppel Shell’s “Cheap,” Chris Anderson’s “Free” and the story of the one-cent Hershey’s Kiss. This story appears in both books, but the versions are different. Both come from the same source, but these two authors can’t even agree on what to call him….
Mr. Ariely did an experiment that used chocolate to dramatize the difference that a small shift in pricing could make. According to “Cheap” he offered his subjects a choice between the 1-cent Kiss and a 26-cent Ferrero Rocher hazelnut. At those prices the test subjects were divided 40 percent to 40 percent, with 20 percent opting for neither. Then the prices came down by one penny each, and 90 percent of the subjects took the free chocolate. Only 10 percent chose the higher-priced brand.
Off we go to “Free,” playing fast and loose with different facts and telling the story in somewhat zingier fashion. “Note: behavioral economists have limited budgets and limited time,” writes Mr. Anderson, the editor of Wired magazine and author of “The Long Tail.” “So a lot of their experiments involve a folding table, candy and random college students.”
In its “Free” version the non-Kiss candy is a Lindt truffle initially priced at 15 cents while the Kiss cost a penny; 73 percent of subjects chose the truffle and 27 percent picked the Kiss, with nobody abstaining. Then the prices were lowered by 1 cent each, and 69 percent of the subjects chose the free Kiss. Mr. Anderson doesn’t bother to account for the rest of the sample group, but he does use a quotation from Mr. Ariely to bolster the case that his “Free” makes: “Zero is not just another price, it turns out. Zero is an emotional hot button — a source of irrational excitement.”
Irrational is an apt word, what with the above-mentioned discrepancies. But what’s the upshot of either version of the experiment? And which book can be trusted? Bear in mind that Mr. Anderson has lately been called to task for making uncredited use of free Wikipedia material….
So neither author is entirely to be trusted. Neither was well-advised to use that chocolate story. And neither has written a book that is as sharp as its one-word catchy title….
Mr. Anderson peers into the future and aims his arguments at the business world. Here is what he means by “Free”: If you want to know what he really thinks, you’re going to have to pay for more than his book. He acknowledges that he is giving his book away online, as well as selling it at the not-free price of $26.99, so he can be hired for much more lucrative speaking and consulting jobs.
“I’ve got a lot of kids, and college isn’t getting any cheaper,” he writes. He is sufficiently crass, reckless and lazy to have had someone else read the science-fiction books he uses to illustrate the perils of scarcity and abundance.
Still, Mr. Anderson has come up with a lively conversation piece. Even when the particulars of his argument are easily assailable, the gist is clear: Now that a cornucopia of Internet material has been made available without fee, and in some cases without scruples, the smart business must find ways to adapt to that new reality….
But after beating the drum for giveaways throughout most of his book, Mr. Anderson eventually acknowledges that his idea is in fact not viable. Such are the perils of his sloppily constructed sweeping argument. No, he doesn’t envision an economy based entirely on giveaways. “Free may be the best price, but it can’t be the only one,” he says. He advocates the balancing of differently priced versions for different markets, acknowledging that this tricky balance is not easily achieved….
Here are links to my two previous blog posts about Chris Anderson:
“Can’t decide which is more embarrassing– failing to cite Wikipedia as a source or using Wikipedia as a source.”
“Laziness is not an excuse for plagiarism”
UPDATE 7/23/09: Today the New York Times printed a correction to Janet Maslin’s review:
The Books of The Times review on July 6, about “Cheap,” by Ellen Ruppel Shell, and “Free,” by Chris Anderson, referred incompletely to experiments involving chocolate conducted by Daniel Ariely and cited in the books. The experiments, in which subjects were offered two different chocolates at different prices, and then offered one at a lower price and one free, were similar but not the same. The books did not describe the same experiment.
Since the original combined review was published, the Times has also published positive separate reviews of each book by different reviewers:
Virginia Postrel’s July 10th review of Free
I don’t quite get the chocolate examples either. Of course I’d rather pay a penny for a piece of chocolate than .15-.26 cents. But that’s only for a piece of chocolate, not a name-brand quality piece of chocolate. There’s a difference b/w a Hershey kiss and a Lindt truffle. There’s such a thing as taste and quality. I think people are still willing to pay for quality.
I should’ve been paid to think of another word for quality…apologies.
Maslin blew it, big time. I am the author of CHEAP–a narrative investigation of the history, science, politics and economics of low price in America. The experiment I described in CHEAP is an entirely different one from the one Anderson described in FREE. Maslin should have known that from READING the book But there’s little evidence that she actually did that…
You are right, and today the Times issued a correction, which I’ve appended to my original blog post.
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