Why did Louis CK price his latest video at just $5? Why leave money on the table?

As the entire universe probably knows by now, Louis CK released his latest hour-long comedy special, “Live at the Comedy Store,” a couple of weeks ago.

His business model—the distribution mechanism for the video—is by now familiar. As with his previous special, he’s selling this one as a video that can be downloaded via his own website. Not on iTunes, not on Amazon. Just his own website. And the one-hour video is priced not at the $9.99 or $18.99 that the pricing savants at iTunes or Amazon would surely have insisted upon, but at the low, low price of $5.

All of this is pretty amazing. Why, in particular, the $5 price tag? After all, the comedian surely could have charged more, and made more money for himself in the process. Yes, as price goes up, demand goes down, generally. And probably there really are some people who would be willing to pay $5 but unwilling to pay, say, $10. So keeping the price low let demand rise. And indeed this video is apparently selling better than the previous one. But if CK had opted to choose more — even substantially more — relatively few fans would be unable or unwilling to afford the difference (and even fewer such people who have the requisite internet connection in the first place). I’d wager that he could literally have doubled his price and not reduced demand by anything close to enough to offset the gains. But I’ll leave such speculation to the marketing gurus out there. Suffice it to say that as these things go, $5 is a surprising bargain.

So CK presumably had an actual choice about how to price his special, his ‘product.’ Why choose such a low price?

Some will suggest that what’s really going on is something cynically clever, perhaps an attempt to use low prices as a way to build his brand or his market share? Perhaps. But CK’s brand could hardly be bigger. If you hadn’t already heard of Louis CK, and if you weren’t already an ardent admirer, it’s unlikely that being able to access what is by all accounts his least-polished special to date would result in your sudden awareness and conversion.

Another possibility was that CK’s pricing was effectively an act of charity. He “left money on the table,” as the saying goes, and that money stayed in the pockets of his fans. And for those fans (however many there are) who could not have afforded to pay $10 for the video, his pricing effectively amounted to gifting them with access that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.

In other words, this rich entertainer (according to some reports CK is worth over $25 million) just donated a little bit of money to every single person who downloaded his special.

Of course, whether he was thinking of it that way when he chose that price is impossible to tell. Who knows what was going on in that head? This is a good illustration of an age-old debate about what it is that really matters, ethically: outcomes or intentions. In this case, it’s impossible to know what CK intended, but it’s much easier — for fans of comedy and fans of charity — to praise the outcome.

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