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The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference
By Malcolm Gladwell
If you want to read a bit about how word-of-mouth trends get started and grow, you'll like The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make A Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell.
Gladwell says that things spread in popularity due to three factors.
Gladwell says that not all people are equally important in launching a new tread. Rather, there are a few key people called 'connectors' who tend to be very social and outgoing. These connectors have diverse social networks and a significant ability to spread information, trends, and products. Trends and epidemics spread when they are adopted by connectors.
Mavens are another type of people involved in spreading a trend. Mavens are people who like helping people and who take a particular interest in evaluating the quality of products or ideas. Because they are so well-informed about things, mavens are often the first to promote quality products. Mavens might also be the early adopters of trends. Often, Gladwell writes, some maven or connector must modify something to make it more acceptable to the larger population.
With connectors and mavens in place, the next ingredient for a trend to take off is for the message to be memorable or 'sticky.' Some messages don't stick in the minds of those who hear them while other messages do.
The best way to create a 'sticky' message is to test the message. Gladwell discusses children's TV--Sesame Street and a show called Blue's Clues, which were designed from the start to be 'sticky.'
For example, educators tested two skits designed to help children read. Both involved having children read (or see read) the word 'hug.' Each letter was uncovered and the sound it represented made.
Oscar the Grouch wasn't too effective in teaching kids the word. As Oscar read the word, Oscar was waving his hands around and making all sorts of fuss that distracted the children from the task at hand. They weren't concentrating on the word, they were concentrating on Oscar.
Another skit where a more subdued puppet slowly uncovered each letter as he read it proved to be much more effective.
How did Sesame Street producers know whether kids were paying attention to the word? Eye movement photography. The producers strapped little kids into chairs and photographed what part of the television screen they were watching. Gladwell tells us that they were watching Oscar, not the letters. But, with the subdued puppet, the children focused upon the letters.
Gladwell explains that we can only focus upon one thing at a time: "the receptors that process what we see--are clustered in a small region in the very middle of the retina called the fovea."
Gladwell says that eye movement photography is quite important in advertising. He writes: "If you can track where someone's fovea is moving and what they are fixating on... you can tell with extraordinary precision what they are actually looking at and what kind of information they are actually receiving. The people who make television commercials, not surprisingly, are obsessed with eye tracking. If you make a beer commercial with a beautiful model, it would be really important to know whether the average twenty-two-year old male in your target audience fixates only on the model or eventually moves to your can of beer."
So, in case you're wondering why Britney Spears is holding her Pepsi can in some particular location in her Super Bowl ad, now you know! It's based upon the location of the fovea! (How do they direct this stuff? "Hey Britney, move the can a bit lower. It's not quite aligned properly with the fovea." SLAP! Britney slaps the director.)
Do we really want people tracking the movement of our foveas? Remember, this was happening thirty years ago for the nefarious purpose of teaching kids to read. What about today?
We learn some other disturbing things. For example, Cookie Monster was a pitch man for Frito-Lay. If you can't trust the Cookie Monster, who can you trust?
This is what I found deeply disturbing about the attempt to try to create trends and 'social' epidemics. In particular, Gladwell discusses the failure of anti-smoking campaigns targeted to teenagers. Having adults tell teenagers not to smoke in TV commercials didn't work. Go figure!
But, by studying the nature of the mavens and connectors who unintentionally tend to encourage teenagers to smoke, Gladwell suggests that we can aim to prevent smoking from a more powerful position. I donít really like this social engineering. Whose business is it, anyway? Why should taxpayers' money be spent to promote social policies that a small group decides is correct for us? I find this too politically correct and too meddlesome of individual freedoms.
And, this isn't the first time social engineers felt they knew what was better for the population and adopted such methods of trying to influence social behavior. For example, similar techniques were used in 1933 by the Nazis (read, for example, the academic book, Backing Hitler: Consent And Coercion In Nazi Germany by Robert Gellately).
Gladwell's third factor is context. Gladwell argues that the specific context of a situation will have a powerful impact upon whether or not a trend will spread.
It seems Gladwell draws heavily upon the work of Robert Cialdini and his book, "Influence." Many of the same studies are quoted. If you like this book, you'll like that book also.
Overall, I enjoyed reading The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make A Big Difference. But, I'm hesitant to recommend buying the book! How do we know what other little trend-setting tricks Gladwell knows or can bring to bear upon us? The Tipping Point is a bestseller. I say, "Just Say No To Social Engineering!" Get your book from the library. Then, order either Fight Club with Brad Pitt or else Josey And The Pussycats with Rachael Leigh Cook. We're on to the sneaky trend setters!