Is it marketing or the placebo effect? Name brands perform better.

Did you ever play basketball as a kid? Back in the days of elementary school, there was one surefire way to take your game from “bleh” to superstardom in just one day – get your mom to buy you a pair of Air Jordans or Reebok Pumps.

But for lots of kids, no matter how much whining, pouting or pleading they did, their parents just weren’t willing to shell out 100 bucks for a pair of sneakers that would soon be outgrown anyway. And maybe it was a good thing. Despite high-profile associations with Michael Jordan and Shaquille O’Neal, the biggest names in the game at the time, those shoes didn’t really improve your basketball skills. Or did they?

Maybe thinking they make you better might actually make you better. Medical professionals have been aware of the placebo effect for years, but recent research has shown it shows up in marketing as well. The research, performed by Frank Germannn of the University of Notre Dame, Aaron Garvey of the University of Kentucky and Lisa Bolton of Penn State University, has found evidence that people perform better with what they believe are brand name items.

The study conducted several experiments, including one involving a new golf putter. The researchers told half the participants they would be using a Nike prototype, while the others were not told which brand they would be using. All participants used the same putter, but the participants using the “Nike” putter on average needed significantly fewer putts to sink the golf ball.

Another aspect of the study gave participants foam ear plugs to diminish distractions during a math test. Half were told their ear plugs were made by 3M, while the other half were not told who manufactured them. Nearly every participant using the “3M” ear plugs got significantly more questions right.

This study seems to indicate that people using items from brands known for strong performance perform better at most tasks. Germann attributes this to an increased confidence, which lowers performance anxiety, which in turn leads to better overall performance. But it also found that being prestigious is not enough to cause the placebo effect on its own.

That means for best marketing confidence, you should emphasize the performance characteristics of your products. Hold them up as a way to not only perform a task, but perform it well. This is particularly useful for athletic brands, but the ear plug component shows it works for any performance-related item.

And maybe, when your own child asks you for the latest, greatest pair of basketball shoes, you should think about actually buying them.

The study appears in the Journal of Consumer Research. You can read it here.