Book review: Contagious: Why Things Catch On

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How has the Korean pop star Psy’s wacky horse-dance video, Gangnam Style, managed to rack up more than 1.3 billion views on YouTube? Why did a 30-minute video by a small, non-profit group calling for the capture of the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony become a media sensation, racing across Twitter and Facebook to eventually become the world’s most shared ad last year?

Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger

Simon & Schuster, 256pp, £12.99

Readers might suppose that Jonah Berger’s new book would shed light on these famous cases of viral content. They would be wrong. He does not explain either case.

Contagious does provide some interesting insights into factors that can help make an idea, a video, a commercial or a product become infectious, but it’s a book that remains heavily indebted to Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 best seller, The Tipping Point, and Chip and Dan Heath’s 2007 book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The latter link isn’t particularly surprising as Berger acknowledges Chip Heath as his university mentor. In the part of the book about why things go viral, many of his central arguments owe a decided debt to the Heaths’ observations about “stickiness”.

They argued that sticky ideas and products tend to be simple, unexpected and credible, with concrete details, an emotional undertow and a memorable story line. Berger, for his part, asserts that six principles help make things go viral: social currency (making people feel that they are cool insiders); triggers (everyday reminders of an item or idea); emotional resonance (making people want to share the experience with friends); observability (that is, a highly visible item advertises itself); usefulness (people like to share practical or helpful information); and storytelling (embedding a product or an idea in a narrative enhances its power).

A study he conducted of the most e-mailed articles in a newspaper, Berger says, showed that pieces about health and education were highly shared because of their usefulness (“Advice on how to live longer and be happier. Tips for getting the best education for your kids”) and that science articles tended to go viral because they “frequently chronicle innovations and discoveries” that evoke a feeling of awe in readers.

As Berger tells it, awe (like amusement and anger) creates a state of “physiological arousal” that goads people to take action – which apparently means, in our Internet age, forwarding a link to an article or a video.

Berger seems intent here on giving readers advice about how to create viral products – he is, after all, a professor of marketing – and he’s unfortunately adopted a ham-handed PowerPoint approach to selling his arguments. He cites studies with dubious metrics (how, for example, do you score newspaper articles “based on how much awe they evoked”); repeats things over and over, as if sheer repetition would create a kind of stickiness; and uses awful, gobbledygook terms like “self-sharing”, “inner remarkability” and “the urgency factor”.

Many of the observations in Contagious are pretty obvious to even the most casual social anthropologist. That scarcity or exclusivity can “help products catch on by making them seem more desirable” is well known. And the notion that good storytelling implants memories in listeners’ minds has been kicking about, well, since Homer’s time.

Contagious is at its most engaging when Berger is looking at specific case studies. He writes that Steve Jobs debated whether the Apple logo on the cover of an open laptop should be right-side up for the user of the computer or right-side up to onlookers, and eventually decided that “observability” to the world was more important and “flipped the logo.” He notes that distinctiveness makes for products that advertise themselves – whether it’s clothing logos (like Nike’s swoosh, Lacoste’s crocodile or Ralph Lauren’s polo player), the distinctive tubular Pringles can or Christian Louboutin’s nail-polish-bright, red-soled shoes.

In another chapter Berger reports that NASA’s Mars Pathfinder project bolstered the sales of Mars bars simply by acting “as a trigger that reminded people of them,” and that Cheerios gets more word-of-mouth than Disneyland Paris because so many more people eat the cereal every day than go to the theme park. Contrary to conventional wisdom, he says, interesting does not always trump boring.

While Contagious is rarely boring, it’s too derivative and clichéd to be genuinely interesting.