How I Resisted a Media Virus

10 05 2013

berger.rThe new book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On, covers one of my favorite topics – how ideas spread through word-of-mouth. Its author, Jonah Berger is marketing professor with considerable chops, and I’ve listened to him on numerous podcasts, read articles he’s written, and interviews he’s given. I’ve gone to his site and looked at the extra material he’s collected to go with the book. I’ve even downloaded a sample of the book from Amazon to my Kindle, and found it extremely engaging.

I really want to read the book. But…I simply can’t bring myself to plop down the money to buy it.

I’ve been tempted over and over, and somehow I’ve managed to resist the temptation. First, there is the magnitude of the marketing campaign – Berger seems to be hitting me from every direction and in every possible way. Normally,I would consider that to be a positive, especially when it comes to books about marketing. But in this case, the standards are different. A book about how to use word-of-mouth should use word-of-mouth as a major part of it’s marketing.

Instead, the overwhelming and slick campaign feels more like a hard sell, and my natural defenses against that are coming to the surface. I can practically feel myself not wanting to reward the campaign by contributing financially to its success.

Second, I’m less than 100% convinced by the premise of the book. The samples I’ve read so far give me a good overview of the approach Berger is using. He identifies six specific reasons why information spreads. In his media appearances and articles I’ve been exposed to, he talks a great deal about social capital. That idea is very strong and useful. No arguments about that one.

But he also refers to another way things spread, which he calls “triggers,” and uses it to explain the runaway success of Rebecca Black’s song “Friday.” This is where I feel let down. According to Berger, the reason the song hit it big, and then got even bigger, was because of the name. Every Friday, people would be reminded about the song and views on YouTube would spike.

It may be true that people would look for the song on Friday more than any other day, but it hardly explains why people ever bothered to look for it in the first place. Perhaps the book chapter gives a more detailed explanation of how a song so reviled became so popular. After all, there are so many songs uploaded to YouTube every day. How did this one song break out? But I suspect that if that information were part of the book, it would have been at least alluded to in the article as well.

That’s not to say that book isn’t worth reading. In fact, I’m ready to consume almost any media that involves Berger discussing the book’s contents. I’m even looking up the academic papers he’s written that serve as the scientific basis for the book. But I don’t want to feel like a sucker. And there is something about the way the book is coming across the makes me worried that that’s exactly how I’ll feel if I purchase the book.

And even though the book is Contagious, that’s enough for me to keep the virus at bay. I know I don’t fall into the majority on this one. The book is still on the New York Times best-seller list, more than two months after its publication.

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Guerrilla Marketing in Post-9-11 America

2 02 2007

How does a low-budget guerrilla marketing campaign for the Cartoon Network shut down a major US city?  By letting people believe a terrorist attack is underway in Boston as police go on full-scale alert and start shutting down highways and bridges.  

That’s what happened last week in Boston when a stunt campaign involving metal boxes showing a character from “Aqua Teen Hunger Force” were mistaken for improvised explosive devices.

Apparently, the boxes – which resemble old Lite-Brite monitors – had wires and coils, and that’s enough to spread fear these days. After a 14-hour panic, police arrested two people for hanging the boxes in strategic spots across the city. Too bad the show wasn’t more popular with people over 20 or someone might have recognized the image of the cartoon character clearly displayed on front of the boxes. 

Mark Adamoyurka, the Boston resident who first reported the boxes to police, told the Boston Herald that he was simply being careful. “I was pretty sure it wasn’t a bomb. I thought it was a kind of an overreaction from the police, but I guess these days it’s better to be safe than sorry,” Adamoyurka said. “It looked like art, very bright and not threatening. Didn’t occur to me it would be a big deal.”

The event – or at least the effect it had on the city of Boston – drew major press coverage across the US and even on news channels abroad. That’s pretty impressive for a low-cost effort aimed at increasing media exposure for the show. The two “suspects” in the case were reportedly paid $300 each by Interference Inc. – a company that specializes in stunt marketing – to hang 40 boxes in hip and trendy areas around the city.  

The problem was that the marketing team allowed the situation to get way out of hand. The organizers should have come forward as soon as the police panic began. Better yet, they should have informed the police about the campaign before launching it so that people reporting “suspicious boxes” could be put at ease. Instead, one of the guys claims the executive running the show told him to remain quiet about the stunt even as the terror theory was gaining steam as more boxes were being discovered.  When the executive finally moved, he called the Cartoon network, not police, keeping the panic going even longer.

In the end, the Turner Broadcast Network, which owns the Cartoon Network, accepted full responsibility for the incident and promised to compensate the city for all the costs that accrued sending bomb squads to numerous locations. The city is reportedly seeking about $750,000 from the company.

So much for low-cost strategies. But then again, the price is a bargain for the immense amount of publicity the stunt managed to attract. But don’t try to sell the show in Boston. The mayor is already trying to get it banned.