Chrysler recruited Eminem to plug its 200 Sedan during the Super Bowl. George Clooney has shilled Martini vermouth. “Influentials,” as they are known by consumer marketers, have been around since way before Ronald Reagan was doing spots for GE in the 1950s.

The marketing of high-tech gadgetry and a few other selected products, however, can apparently invert the rationale of exploiting star cred to rub off on a Lexus or a Suntory bottle. A new line of research shows that you don’t need as many Twitter followers as Lady Gaga to sell smart phones. In fact, the best way to hawk some high-tech items might be to craft a marketing campaign that plays on insecurities generated by a chance encounter with the super while taking garbage to the basement (on the butler’s day off).

The reason that affluent consumers might head up the low-brow marketing staircase is rooted in the psychology of "keeping up with the janitor." When the smart-phone recalcitrant (like me) sees the guy at the Halal stand on the corner with an iPhone, the technophobe (or cheapskate, like me—better stick with the image of hedge fund managers) will observe the belt-holstered gadget on the falafel man, only to experience an insecure desperation to shop that will prompt that individual to cross against the light to get to the Verizon Wireless store across the street as quickly as possible.

A study recently published online in The Journal of Consumer Research found marketing from the bottom up works in some but not all cases. Vicki Morwitz of New York University, and Edith Shalev of the Technicon Israel Institute of Technology acknowledged in their article the existence of a new form of social influence process called Comparison-Driven Self Evaluation and Restoration, which apparently also works for $200 T-shirts. If you want to sound academic: “Influence via comparison-driven self evaluation and restoration (CDSER) takes place when one observes a counter-stereotypical product user, and as a result questions one’s relative standing on the trait that the product symbolizes.”

In other words, "me out-of-touch prosperous klutz, me need iPhone.”

But CEO Tim Cook probably won’t introduce "The Security Guard Communicator" at next year’s Apple product roundup. Even Steve Jobs would have had difficulty with the ad campaign. Morwitz and Shalev contend that this type of pitch may work best once a product has already become firmly established, opening the possibility of marketing to well-to-do buyers who are trying to play consumer catch-up. As Occupy Wall Street emphasizes, the 99 percent still have a lot to offer.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons