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Book Review

‘Contagious: Why Things Catch On’ by Jonah Berger

“Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger

“Contagious: Why Things Catch On” by Jonah Berger

Published in 2000, “The Tipping Point” rapidly reached a tipping point. In the blink of an eye, it seems, Malcolm Gladwell’s argument that social epidemics are spread by a small number of special people, whom he calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen, became conventional wisdom.

According to Jonah Berger, an assistant professor of marketing at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, conventional wisdom is wrong. More important than the messenger, Berger points out, is the message. In “Contagious,” he identifies six ingredients or principles that are associated with messages, products, or ideas that go viral. Summarized in an easy-to-remember acronym (STEPPS), they are: Social Currency, Triggers, Emotion, Public, Practical Value, and Stories.

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Some of Berger’s principles of social transmission are well known, even to those of us who have never sold a Girl Scout cookie. Most of us understand, for example, that emotions (more than reason) get our attention and boost sharing. We agree that observable things are more likely to be discussed and the packaging of information affects how often it gets noticed.

“Contagious” contains arresting — and counterintuitive — facts and insights. Each day, Berger reveals, Americans, on average, engage in 16 conversations in which they say something about a brand, product, organization, or service. Narrower content, he says, may get shared more often because it reminds the speaker of something.

Most interesting of all, however, are the examples Berger cites of successful and unsuccessful marketing campaigns. To raise money to fight prostate cancer, he writes, a group of guys in Melbourne, Australia, found a way to go public with a heretofore private act. They asked donors to grow handlebar mustaches for a month to raise awareness about the disease. Within a few years the idea spread to Denmark, Ireland, South Africa, and Taiwan and $174 million was raised. Public health organizations used a different strategy, called “the poison parasite” by researchers, for an antismoking campaign. Injecting poison into an iconic ad, they put a caption on a picture of two Marlboro Men that read: “Bob, I’ve got emphysema.” Anti-drug ads, Berger notes, backfired when they spread the word that lots of teens were using, making some other teenagers more willing to experiment.

Berger acknowledges that the challenge for advertisers involves “cutting through the clutter,” but he does not always indicate how successful the ads he cites were in doing so. Did the slogan “Each and every dining tray needs five fruits and veggies a day,” printed in different colors and fonts, and shown 20 times to college students, have a lasting impact on their eating habits? Have the bigger logos on Ralph Lauren and Lacoste shirts boosted sales? Do “I Voted” stickers increase turnout? Do the factoids placed under Snapple caps get passed along to friends, without calling attention to the product? More generally, do “sale prices,” which have become ubiquitous, still have the power to attract customers?

Given the ratio of failure to success in spreading the word about anything at all, the conclusion to Berger’s interesting book seems too sanguine. The best part of his framework, Berger announces, “is that anyone can use it. It doesn’t require a huge advertising budget, marketing genius, or some sort of creativity gene.” By following the STEPPS, he claims, “you can make any product or idea contagious.”

You can’t help wondering if he believes what he’s just said — or whether he’s just trying to make “Contagious” contagious.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell.

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