In the late 60s, a TV producer named Joan Cooney decided to produce a children’s TV show that would influence children across America to learn to read. She called her show Sesame Street. Cooney researched her idea extensively, consulting with sociologists and scientists for the best ways to pass on messages to children via television. Sesame Street has been widely praised for finding a way to make television “sticky”—it uses television to lodge important ideas (like the alphabet) in the minds of children.
Television is a great example of a “sticky” medium. When we watch TV, we remember it well: we can recall jingles from commercials, sing along with the theme music from our favorite TV shows, etc. Cooney’s insight was that TV’s stickiness can be an important tool for education.
So far, we’ve been talking about the importance of the messenger in a social epidemic (the Law of the Few). In order for a message to spread throughout society, it has to have the right people carrying it. But the message itself must also be “sticky”—people must, on some level, like the message, or be able to remember it easily. So what makes a message sticky?
This passage reminds us that no single one of the three laws of social epidemics can sufficiently explain a social epidemic: only the combination of people, a sticky product, and the right environment can start a trend.
Ad agencies have spent millions of dollars trying to find what makes a message sticky. One interesting finding is that people need to see an ad about six times before they really remember it. Then there are other ways to make the ad more memorable: using humor, getting a famous celebrity to endorse a product, etc.
Stickiness can be a highly profitable quality, because when people remember a product, they’re more likely to buy it in the future.
One of the most informative stories from the history of advertising came in the 1970s, when there was a competition between the ad agency McCann Erickson and the famous marketer Lester Wunderman. For years, Wunderman had been handling ads for the Columbia Record Club, a huge mail order club. Now, Columbia wanted to employ McCann Erickson to handle its advertising. Wunderman proposed a competition: he would design magazine ads for Columbia, to compete with those designed by McCann Erickson. Columbia agreed, and in the end, Wunderman’s ads were considerably more successful in attracting new customers to Columbia. Wunderman designed TV ads about the “secret of the Gold Box.” If viewers could find the hidden gold box in their issues of TV Guide, they would get a free Columbia record. The ad campaign was hugely successful, even though executives were highly skeptical that it would work when Wunderman first proposed it. In many ways, the Gold box was a cheesy idea—but it was undeniably memorable and “sticky,” which is why it worked.
The Wunderman “gold box” anecdote is a good example of how a small, seemingly cheesy gimmick can lodge itself in people’s memories and make a product or idea highly popular. The gold box ad campaign was successful because it made TV viewers and magazine readers more likely to remember the Columbia Record Club itself. One interesting point here is that the gold box, by almost any measure, is a really bad idea—it’s cheesy and far too simplistic. This would suggest that stickiness often has very little to with cleverness or inventiveness. While people might like to believe that they remember the best, most interesting ideas, they’re often likely to remember the simplest and stickiest.
Another significant example of “stickiness” came in the 60s, when a study was conducted about the importance of fear in learning. Subjects were divided into two groups: one group was given a booklet about the importance of tetanus inoculation; the other was given a booklet about the grotesque dangers of getting tetanus. Afterwards, it was found that people in the latter group were much more likely to say they were going to get their tetanus shots. But surprisingly, in the weeks following the experiment, almost none of the subjects actually got their tetanus shots—the fear and education wore off. Then, when the scientists tried the experiment again, they gave all subjects a map of the local area, showing where one could get tetanus shots. This time, a large portion of people from both control groups eventually got their tetanus shots. The interesting thing about the experiment is that the differences in persuasive techniques ultimately had little effect on the subjects’ likelihood of getting a tetanus shot. What finally encouraged the subjects to get a shot was a simple map.
The tetanus study is another good example of how sticky information can be more persuasive than logically convincing information—in this way, the study echoes the findings of the Peter Jennings study from the previous chapter. In both cases, a logically sound argument in favor of a certain point of view (voting for Reagan, getting a tetanus shot) was found to be less effective and less persuasive than an irrational, almost subconsciously effective behavior or technique (such as Jennings’s facial expression or the map).
Stickiness has become particularly important in advertising in the 21st century, because there is so much advertising in general, and it’s hard for any single ad to stand out when there are hundreds of others. It thus becomes especially important to discover techniques for holding people’s attention. One of the major pioneers of these attention-grabbing techniques was Sesame Street. The show was built around the idea that, by getting children’s attention, one could then educate them about reading, writing, and math.
So far, Gladwell’s examples have implied that stickiness and intellectual content are almost mutually exclusive. The success of Sesame Street, however, suggests that the two concepts can reinforce one another. In effect, the TV show’s young audiences “came for the stickiness and stayed for the education.”
While making Sesame Street, scientists studied children to understand how they watched TV, and what portions of a TV show were most interesting to children. Producers showed “rough” episodes of Sesame Street to test audiences of children in order to decide what parts of the episode should be shortened or cut out altogether. Test audiences revealed that children preferred the parts of the show that blended “fantasy and reality”—i.e., the parts where real actors interacted with puppets like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch. So test audiences helped to shape Sesame Street into the famous TV show it became. Furthermore, producers used test audiences in an effort to make Sesame Street as sticky as possible.
The history of Sesame Street is a great example of how TV producers used sticky advertising techniques to make their “product” (the TV show itself) more successful. Surprisingly, the quintessential Sesame Street scene—in which a live human being interacts with a giant puppet like Oscar or Big Bird—was the result of a research group, not just the showrunners’ original ideas.
The idea behind Sesame Street is that when children watch fun, sticky content, they’ll be more likely to pay attention to educational lessons imbedded in the TV show. But the producers considered a possible objection: what if the children watching Sesame Street were just enjoying the sticky content and ignoring the educational lessons? After conducting a series of experiments with children’s test groups, the producers learned some important lessons about educating children. They learned that they had to put educational content in the center of the TV screen, where TV viewers are most likely to look. They also learned that they shouldn’t feature Sesame Street characters and educational content, such as letters or numbers, in the same shot, since children would just watch the characters and not the words or letters.
There’s no rule that says that rational content and stickiness must be either mutually exclusive or mutually reinforcing. Sometimes stickiness distracts from the “message” of the product, and sometimes it enhances this message. In the case of Sesame Street, the show’s producers had to be careful that their show’s stickiness didn’t hinder its young viewers’ attempts to learn about numbers and letters.
Years after Sesame Street, TV producers tried to produce another children’s show using the same educational techniques Sesame Street had pioneered. The show was called Blue’s Clues, and it was deliberately simpler and more straightforward than Sesame Street. There were fewer characters, and none of the clever wordplay of Sesame Street. And yet Blues Clues is the much stickier show: tests showed that children paid closer attention to Blues Clues and learned more from it, too. In general, Sesame Street was a “magazine show”—it was made up of forty or fifty one-minute segments without much of a common story. In the 60s, it was believed that short segments were the best way to hold children’s attention. But in fact, it was later theorized that children prefer a strong narrative, which means that usually, different segments of a children’s TV show should be longer.
The differences between the two TV shows, Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues demonstrate some important points about stickiness. First, stickiness varies from one age group to another. For the parents watching Sesame Street with their children, “stickiness” meant shorter segments and amusing adult jokes. But for the children, “stickiness” meant repetition and simplicity. That’s why Blue’s Clues became more successful among children than Sesame Street—the show’s producers used more research to show that children preferred strong narrative.
Blue’s Clues was designed to entertain children by providing the humor and fantasy of Sesame Street, but with longer segments, a more obvious narrative, and fewer jokes intended for adults (which had been a staple of Sesame Street for a long time). The show revolves around solving riddles (the children on the show are given clues, which they must solve). Blue’s Clues borrowed the sticky techniques of Sesame Street: the producers used test audiences to measure the segments of the show that interested children most, and used strategies like keeping the educational content in the center of the screen. The show also used lots of repetition. While repetition is often thought of as boring and annoying, it’s an important feature of children’s shows, since children tend to enjoy repeating new information, “celebrating” what they’ve just learned.
Stickiness and entertainment aren’t necessarily one and the same. A catchy jingle might be extremely annoying, but it’s also very sticky—it gets “stuck” in viewers’ heads. Watching Blue’s Clues, the difference between stickiness and entertainment becomes clear: in the interest of being sticky, the show uses an amount of repetition that, by most adult standards, would be pretty boring. But what might seem dull for adults is actually very entertaining for younger children; in other words, different groups of people have different definitions of stickiness.
Gladwell attended a research meeting for Blue’s Clues. During the meeting, scientists and researchers met with preschoolers and gave them fun puzzles in order to identify what children would and wouldn’t like in a TV show episode. The researchers gave the children a riddle, to which the answer was “penguins.” Step by step, the researchers gave clues to the children, so that by the end, all the children could guess the correct answer. The researchers spent huge amounts of time researching the best way to structure these riddles for TV, so that the children watching will figure out the answer, but not too early.
According to the format of Blue’s Clues, the show’s characters give children riddles (such as “penguin”). The show must be carefully tested to ensure that the riddles are suspenseful—and therefore sticky for their viewers. To an even greater degree than Sesame Street, Gladwell argues, the success of Blue’s Clues depended on research teams maximizing their show’s stickiness.
In general, stickiness can be counterintuitive. One would think that people respond to witty, clever advertisements and TV messages. But in fact, the stickiest information is often simple and unoriginal. That’s why the “Gold Box” campaign, despite seeming cheesy and unoriginal, was so successful. It’s also why Blue’s Clues is a more popular children’s show than Sesame Street, in spite of its simpler, more repetitive format. While there is no simple formula for stickiness, “there is always a simple way to package information that, under the right circumstances, can make it irresistible.”
Whatever people might think about themselves, in reality it’s often the simplest, cheesiest, least original ads and TV shows that become the most popular. One could interpret this fact positively (since it allows TV producers to make a TV show that teaches children how to read and count) or negatively (since it suggests that human beings aren’t as clever or tasteful as they’d like to think, and that they can be manipulated with simple gimmicks). For the time being, Gladwell doesn’t editorialize excessively: he shows how, for better or worse, stickiness is important to trends.