What Your Last Name Really Means to Marketers

Pamela Anderson and Renee Zellwegger
Getty Images
Pamela Anderson and Renee Zellwegger

Life apparently is very different for Pamela Anderson than it is for Renee Zellweger.

It's not what you're thinking. It's all about their names.

My last name begins with a "W".

As a kid, I was usually at the back of the class, last in line, given opportunities only after everyone else had a chance.

As an adult, does that make me more eager to buy stuff?


The Journal of Consumer Research has published a studywhich claims that the further back in the alphabet the first letter of your last name is, the faster you make purchasing decisions. It's because you feel denied. Cupcakes run out in kindergarten before you got one? You spend THE REST OF YOUR LIFE MAKING SURE YOU GET A CUPCAKE!

The news could be very helpful for marketers.

"Society does not treat all names equal," say authors Kurt Carlson and Jacqueline Conard in what they call the Last Name Effect. "Many organizations (e.g., elementary and middle schools) rely on alphabetical order of surnames to determine the order in which children access various opportunities." Kids forced to wait hate it. They grow up vowing never to miss another opportunity again.

The authors conducted studies to try to prove this theory. In one, MBA students were sent emails offering four free tickets to a top-ranked women's basketball game. Students whose names were in the back half of the alphabet responded on average in 19 minutes, six minutes faster than those whose names start in the front half. (I wonder how quickly they would've responded if it had been a men's basketball game, just sayin').

The results were repeated in another study which offered free wine and $5 to students of legal drinking age in exchange for taking part in a survey. But in addition to students in the M-Z group replying faster than the A-L group, a large number of A-L's didn't even bother to reply. Getting a freebie was no big deal.

"Children with surnames that begin with a letter near the beginning of the alphabet enjoy privileged treatment," the authors write. "They are at the beginning of lines, they sit in the front of the class, and they often get first choice when opportunities arise." This apparently has lifelong implications.

So, by this reasoning, Pam Anderson figures if she misses one opportunity, another will come along. Renee Zellweger, however, is terrified there will be no second chances. "For marketers, this raises the important question of whether those late in the alphabet will be more likely to respond to a limited time offer."

Which brings me back to...me. As a "W", I generally make up my mind very quickly to buy something. My husband is the opposite. He is patient. He can walk away.

What does his last name start with? A? G? L?

No. He's a "W", too.

Maybe he's an exception to the Last Name Effect, but it turns out he is right in line with an earlier study called the"Name-Letter Effect".That research found people choose things which have a similar spelling to their own last names, including "one's choice of spouse." Bingo. The Hubbanator and I share four letters in our last names. Perhaps marketers should pay attention to "effect" as well. Still waiting for Wells Fargo to pitch me. Or a fund specializing in oil wells. Water wells. Wales. Walls. Shells. Hells bells.

Questions? Comments? Funny Stories? Email funnybusiness@cnbc.com