How much is a word worth? If the word is "artisanal," a lot. Try pricing artisanal chocolates or artisanal jeans. Studio D'Artisan jeans run $350, while some R by 45RPM models can still top $1000, even in these chastened times. The word "artisanal" also works its magic on menus and in markets. Foodies will insist that "artisanal" is a meaningful distinction in danger of being overused. That ship has sailed. The "artisanal" bread on some of Jack in the Box's sandwiches has "become a huge hit with the burgers-and-fries crowd," crowed a 2004 press release. Diet conscious? Weight Watchers has "Artisan" pizza. You'll find it in your grocer's frozen-food aisle.
What does "artisanal" mean, anyway? For one thing, it means the seller can charge more money. Psychological studies have refuted the longtime economic notion of a "reserve price," a fixed maximum one is willing to pay for something. Is $8 reasonable price for a box of chocolates, or is $80? The answer will depend on the context: how nice a box it's in, what we see other people buying, and so on. Above all, we rely on memory. In deciding whether $80 is too much to pay for chocolates, I remember the prices I've seen advertised and what I paid the last time. Remembered prices allow us to impose a veneer of rationality and consistency on our money decisions. Inside, we're more like kids in a candy store. We want what we want, and we haven't a clue what it should cost.
That's where a word like "artisanal" comes in. Its sends the message, remembered prices don't count. "Artisanal" jeans are different from plain old jeans. Therefore, the old prices don't apply. The consumer is left guessing at what a fair price might be. Influenced by context (stores are all about context) many choose to pay a price that has little to do with the cost of materials and labor. Eric Wilson, in The New York Times, wrote
During the modern gilded age, the spiraling prices of designer clothes had more to do with driving profits than the actual design or construction of a garment. Designers found they could charge a lot for the perception of prestige. Dresses and suits and handbags were priced like cars, and consumers didn’t blink. But with jeans, it just felt more obvious that some kind of game was being played; the basic elements, after all, had not changed substantially in decades: five pockets, cotton, some rivets.
Don't get me wrong: Many "artisanal" products are truly superior. The term's adoption by frozen and fast-food producers suggests it's also smart marketing. Jack in the Box charges more for its artisanal-bread sandwiches than for more meat-intensive burgers.
Why has "artisanal" been so widely adopted? Probably because it's one of those poetic terms (like "creamery" butter and "heirloom" tomatoes) that sounds great without making much of a factual claim. An artisan is someone who makes something, so "artisanal" can basically apply to anything made by humans. It's therefore become the all-purpose excuse for charging a premium.