Slippery and Sticky

It’s summer, so I’m trying to make a dent in a big pile of books sitting by my desk.

One of the first I’ve tackled is Chip Heath and Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Other Die. I found it an interesting and useful read, though I’m probably not the target audience, as a lot of it is aimed at corporate and institutional professionals responsible for communication or public relations. I see as part of a mini-canon of books that have an evolutionary take on culture without being caught up in the problematic claims of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, or without descending to the epistemological weakness of “strong” memetics. (Gary Taylor’s underappreciated book Cultural Selection is a good example.) Call it memetics-light, I guess.

Anyway, the Heaths identify six attributes of “sticky” narratives and ideas. The attributes are: simple, unexpected, concrete, credible, emotional and story-telling. The Heaths do a good job filling out each of these attributes with specific examples and memorable anecdotes. (They’re obviously hyper-aware that if you’re going to claim to have identified attributes that made communication memorable and powerful, you’re going to have to demonstrate those attributes in what you write.)

I have three issues with the overall approach, though. The first, I suppose, is a case of me trying to impose my own intellectual preferences. They treat their six attributes as more or less transhistorical and fundamentally cognitive even though plenty of the examples they discuss have some highly specific, local, particular and often deeply historical element to them. Take “credibility”. What’s credible has a lot to do with what people already think they know, with the local, historically shaped and thus highly contingent character of “common sense”. They use the example of an urban legend about necrotizing fasciitis allegedly being spread by bananas from Costa Rica. They properly point out that the rumor got credibility in part through its clever discursive use of various authoritative sounding names and organizations (including necrotizing fasciitis, aka flesh-eating bacteria), but they don’t talk about the bananas from Costa Rica part, which taps into all sorts of racial and geographical coding in American society. If I tried to start a rumor that cheddar cheese from Canada was spreading a disease, I doubt I’d get much traction even if I used all the other authoritative tricks and turns of the earlier rumor.

This does strike me as important if you want to follow the Heaths’ magic recipe and cook up some sticky ideas yourself. It’s not good enough to just run down the magic checklist: that only tells you about the attributes a sticky idea has to have. It tells you what the container looks like, but to fill it up with something, you’ve got to have a good ear for history, for popular culture, for the sound of language. What was credible in medieval France to peasants is different than what’s credible in a World Bank meeting today. In a sense, they can’t provide any more guidance to an aspirant message-crafter than I could help people to write novels by writing a basic description of what a good novel is. The Heaths want to maintain that you don’t really have to have any talent to craft reproducible ideas and messages. Put me down as a skeptic.

The second issue is that they give zero attention to the political economy of media, rather like some of the people drawn to “memes”, “frames” and similar concepts. They don’t leave room for the possibility that many messages and ideas flourish because of a seventh attribute: incessant, forced repetition that is bought or commanded. I give a lot less credence to this factor than many “cultural leftists” or “cultural conservatives”, but there’s something to this point. Ideas spread sometimes because the powerful insist that they spread, or because wealthy interests purchase their dissemination. It may be true, as the Heaths conclude, that anyone with the right idea and the right hook can succeed in disseminating their message or their vision, but the Horatio Algerism gets a bit thick sometimes. Power matters.

Third, the strangest assumption they make is that everyone wants to communicate clearly and disseminate their ideas as widely as possible, and that most cases of bad or confusing communication are the consequence of ineptitude. They really don’t give any attention to something as simple as lying, which is a fundamental part of human communicative action, both interpersonally and institutionally. Sometimes human beings, particularly human beings in power or who speak for power, are socially required to communicate, but they have no interest in communicating forthrightly. For the Heaths, the most common reason that people fail to make their ideas sticky is that they know too much and thus overburden their communication in every respect (“the Curse of Knowledge”, as they put it). Sure, I agree, and there’s no institution more afflicted than academia. But I would say the most common reason that people fail to achieve stickiness is either instrumental or subconscious slipperiness. Take a look at these two recent discussions of quality failures in the manufacturing of the XBox 360. There’s no way that the Microsoft representative in the second of those two links is just failing to practice good “stickiness”. The guy intends to say as little as he possibly can. It’s not particularly effective as communication, but I don’t think it’s intended to be. It’s intended to put up a smokescreen, probably primarily at the advice of Microsoft’s lawyers. Sometimes, you really don’t want your ideas or words to be sticky. I’m sure George Bush the Elder wishes he hadn’t said, “No new taxes”, and equally that Bill Clinton wishes he hadn’t said, “I did not have sex with that woman”. Very memorable, both of those moments, but not in a good way for either of them.

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10 Responses to Slippery and Sticky

  1. back40 says:

    “If I tried to start a rumor that cheddar cheese from Canada was spreading a disease, I doubt I’d get much traction even if I used all the other authoritative tricks and turns of the earlier rumor.”

    BSE. Canada has had trouble with the disease. Their cattle products are viewed with suspicion by those who are focused on this issue. I can imagine some clever Heathian rumor sticking, at least for a while, even though it is a scientific absurdity.

    Not that this contradicts you points. It may make them a bit less sticky though.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Good point, eh?

    There’s probably a way to sell any idea or meme, if you think on it.

  3. emschwar says:

    Do we buy bananas from anywhere that’s not mostly populated by brown-skinned people? What makes you think the original rumormongers picked Costa Rica for any reason other than: “Bob, where do bananas come from?” “Gee, I dunno… this one says Costa Rica….” “Brilliant!”

    That said, I don’t think it’s at all unreasonable for the Heaths to not address lies; from what you say (I haven’t read the book myself), it sounds like they’re concentrating on what makes communication work; the kind of malinformation the story from the Microsoft rep you link to engages in by definition doesn’t stick. He’s covering up, everybody knows it, and there’s nothing we can do about it. For it to stick by the Heath’s definition, I suspect they’d require that a lot of people believe him, and I think you’d have to work fairly hard to find anyone that does.

    As for power, well, power matters, but it’s not the primary mover of an idea. It can make you aware of something you otherwise wouldn’t have heard of, but it can’t make you like it– the message itself has to appeal, at least somewhat. Power can make a marginal idea popular, but I don’t believe it can make a truly bad one popular. Of course, that’s a poor argument, as I can easily claim any idea that’s popular is by definition not “truly bad”, but I think we’re dealing with slightly looser arguments here. 🙂

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Oh, I think that rumors and urban legends alight on very particular kinds of prior common sense, and those definitely sometimes have to do with things like race, gender, and so on. The common urban legend in African-American communities about Kentucky Fried Chicken being loaded with chemicals intended to sterilize consumers is drawing on all sorts of racially loaded histories to achieve credibility.

    I should add, though, that Gary Alan Fine once wrote an interesting piece on commodity rumors (which I drew on for a scholarly piece I wrote on the subject much later) where he pointed out that some of the most common food and product rumors actually have a relatively minor basis in fact–he found a couple of court cases in which foreign objects/unusual meats were found to have been in fried fast food, for example. But real cases don’t explain why certain stories and rumors propagate so readily and powerfully.

  5. Doug says:

    The six characteristics are necessary but not sufficient in other words.

    (I wonder if successful rumor propagation isn’t essentially the same question as hit movies, popular songs and bestselling books.)

  6. Yes, Gary Taylor’s book is worthwhile, much better than most of the memetics nonsense.

  7. If I tried to start a rumor that cheddar cheese from Canada was spreading a disease, I doubt I’d get much traction even if I used all the other authoritative tricks and turns of the earlier rumor.

    So, try it. It would be an interesting sociological experiment: Come up with 10 or 12 different ideas, vary them on the dimensions that you’d like to measure, send out the newly-crafted urban legends to your email list (preferably your non-academic friends, I suppose), and see how long it takes for a relative or neighbor to send you the same urban legend.

  8. joe o says:

    I liked the “made to stick” book. It was clear and easy to read.

    I don’t think most PR problems are ones where lying is needed. Consider selling the Zune. It probably isn’t as good as an ipod but it had a lot of different features that the Microsoft PR guys would like to point out to people. The factors that the Heath brothers discuss could have been useful.

    I just ordered “Cultural Selection” from Abebooks where it is real cheap.

  9. joeo says:

    “Cultural Selection” does not hold up well at all. The part about the clustering of prominent authors in newly opened niches was good but that was about it.

    One chapter (as part of a defense of the multicultural critiques) states that the multicultural critiques of literature are analogous to recovered memories of child sexual abuse. That doesn’t make for a very persuasive argument in 2007.

  10. mfriedman says:

    As CEO of a public relations firm, my policy for twenty years has always been “only the truth.” Lies and PR inevitably collide – now the press is bad.

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