Puzzler on Prom Dresses and Textbooks

Why can buying a prom dress be legally similar to buying a textbook?

We’ll send some Freakonomics schwag to the best comment post in the next 24 hours.


Because new versions come out so often that the one you own becomes worthless in a year? Not that you use textbooks or prom dresses much after a certain period of time.


My best guess is that both can be used as "education expenses" from a tax perspective.


Both will only be used once and end up on a bedroom floor somewhere.


Easy: In both cases, the price plummets after the first use even though the utility is not diminished (minor markings in the book, minor stains on the dress, both acceptable for future use....).

Eric M. Jones

The both come with lots of bundled material?

(There are laws now being implemented to restrict how this can be done).


Once you spill beer on it, you cannot return it.


Because both items are over priced, used once in a lifetime and sit in the back of your closet for the rest of eternity


Because you intend to buy it, use it for a limited period of time, and then not use it again.

Legally, I'm sure this has to do with whether the item can be returned for a full refund.

Chris M.

I dont know legally but I know economically why they are similar:

because you use them both in a limited time frame then they have no use after that time period. Also they both drastically depreciate, where one is better off buying used.

Finally b/c one would be better off renting both instead of buying



Both are required for their respective "events" and have much less monetary value after the event ends. Therefore, both typically are subject to No Returns policies.


There is a significant principal-agent problem. In each case, one party (high school student/college professor) selects the item for purchase (dress/textbook) and a different party (parent/college student) typically pays for it. Clearly there will be a tendency to make a more expensive choice.

Nate C.

The buyer has undertaken an action contingent on a future event occurring. For example, a girl buys a prom dress assuming that her date will actually show up and take her to the prom. A student buys a textbook assuming that the professor will actually teach from that book. If the follow-up action does not take place, the buyer has undergone a hardship, some of which is (often) legally the responsibility of the promiser to repay.


The School Board decides the areas that both must cover.

Tony Carson

They are both a rip-off.


Both are a required purchase to partake in a particular event. You need your book for class, you need a dress/tux to go to prom.

Beyond that they are both extremely overpriced items with incredibly short lifespans of use (one night and about 3 months) and both lose almost all their value in a very short period of time (no resale value).


It's something you're only going to use once (one night or one semester) and should probably resell afterwards.


Because both have to be labeled as "used" if they are re-sold?


Note: this is based on my understanding of US law, and may not be applicable in other countries (and, it's possible that my understanding is wrong, of course).

In both cases, you're purchasing a physical good which grants the purchaser certain rights, including the right of first sale (ie. the purchaser can re-sell the item at their discretion) and the right to adjust the item as they see fit (eg. highlight the textbook, have the dress altered, etc.). Further, the purchaser can expect that both items will be free from defects in materials or manufacture (eg. the pages won't fall out of the textbook the first time it's opened, and the dress's seams won't come apart the first time it's put on).

On a more mundane level, both purchases are identical from the cash register's point of view: they both require some valid form of payment for the item to become the property of the purchaser instead of the store (or, especially for some dresses, the creator).

Further, both the dress and textbook have elements which cannot legally be copied and elements which can be: the dress's designer's label cannot legally be copied (ie. you can't make a new dress and put that label on it; you could make a photocopy for your insurance records), the textbook can't be photocopied in whole (at least, not if the copies are going to belong to someone who doesn't posses the book itself). The dress's form can be copied, though, as can short passages of the textbook or any facts which it may contain.

Did I miss anything?



The similarities are too numerous to list. Asking how they're *different* might be more enlightening.

BTW, it irks me every time I see "schwag" here - the word you're looking for is "swag".


Both are valued for how up-to-date they are and quickly become outdated, with vanishing resale value. (They're also both likely to end up on the floor at some point.)