Another important way to analyze social epidemics is to discuss the content being disseminated. Although it’s important for people to spread ideas and products, these people must first decide that the idea or product is worth spreading. Therefore, the idea or product needs to appeal to people it some way. Not only must it be likeable; it must also be memorable, so that it’s easy to pass on to other people. Gladwell coins the term “stickiness” to refer to an idea or product’s memorability, catchiness, and overall ability to hold a person’s attention.
At times, stickiness can be harmful and even highly dangerous. For instance, a cigarette is an extremely sticky product: its “sticky” nicotine content can lead smokers to develop a chemical addiction to the product, leading to the risk of lung cancer. Even so, stickiness can be an important force for good, provided that the product or idea in question is positive. For example, the book describes how the children’s show Sesame Street maximized its stickiness in order to teach children how to read and count. Researchers spent unprecedented amounts of time studying what children did and didn’t find entertaining in a TV show. Their findings prompted them to design a TV show that would use funny characters like Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch to teach lessons about numbers and letters. The Sesame Street researchers distinguished between their show’s stickiness (its humor and entertainment) and its content (the educational lessons that the show’s producers had wanted to pass along to children in the first place). By presenting education in a sticky, memorable form, Sesame Street has succeeded in educating millions of children, demonstrating that the concept of stickiness can be used to transmit positive messages and ideas.
The research that went into Sesame Street also brings up an important point: the stickiness of an idea or product is different from the idea or product itself. In order to be truly successful, a trend’s stickiness must strengthen a person’s awareness of the trendy idea or product itself. Many trends are unsuccessful because the stickiness becomes better-known than the product it was intended to popularize—for example, people frequently remember jingles or funny commercials without remembering the product the commercials advertised. Similarly, the producers of Sesame Street sometimes failed to educate children because the humor of their show distracted young viewers from the educational content. In a sense, then, stickiness is an “uncontrollable” concept. Even when it’s successful, stickiness doesn’t necessarily enable the popularity of an idea or product. But although not all sticky ideas and products become successful, all successful ideas and products are sticky. A trend succeeds when the idea or product in question can be passed easily from one person to another. This process only works when the idea or product is clever, memorable, catchy—or, in a word, sticky.
The concept of stickiness, then, has major ramifications for our understanding of intelligence, education, and persuasion. Most human beings want to believe that they can only be swayed with strong, rational arguments, grounded in evidence and logic. But in fact, the phenomenon of “stickiness” suggests that humans are more often swayed by irrational stimuli like songs, jokes, or simple gimmicks. As Gladwell admits, most people would be disturbed and embarrassed to know how easily they can be controlled by stickiness. Furthermore, stickiness can be dangerous—something members of the anti-smoking movement know very well. Nevertheless, Gladwell doesn’t necessarily see stickiness as a problem. Humans simply aren’t as rational as they’d like to believe, and the first step toward helping and educating people—as the producers of Sesame Street proved—might be acknowledging the importance of stickiness.
Stickiness Quotes in The Tipping Point
There is more than one way to tip an epidemic, in other words. Epidemics are a function of the people who transmit infectious agents, the infectious agent itself, and the environment in which the infectious agent is operating.
When Winston filter-tip cigarettes were introduced in the spring of 1954, for example, the company came up with the slogan "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." At the time, the ungrammatical and somehow provocative use of "like" instead of "as" created a minor sensation. It was the kind of phrase that people talked about, like the famous Wendy's tag line from 1984 "Where's the beef?"
In 1978, with Gold Box television support, every magazine on the schedule made a profit, an unprecedented turnaround.
What's interesting about this story is that by every normal expectation McCann should have won the test. The gold box idea sounds like a really cheesy idea.
What we now think of as the essence of Sesame Street—the artful blend of fluffy monsters and earnest adults—grew out of a desperate desire to be sticky.
The pace is deliberate. The script is punctuated with excruciatingly long pauses. There is none of the humor or wordplay or cleverness that characterizes Sesame Street.
We all want to believe that the key to making an impact on someone lies with the inherent quality of the ideas we present. But in none of these cases did anyone substantially alter the content of what they were saying. Instead, they tipped the message by tinkering, on the margin, with the presentation of their ideas, by putting the Muppet behind the H-U-G, by mixing Big Bird with the adult.
Between 1955 and 1965, there wasn't a single case of suicide on the entire island. In May 1966, an eighteen-year-old boy hanged himself in his jail cell after being arrested for stealing a bicycle, but his case seemed to have little impact. Then, in November of 1966, came the death of R., the charismatic scion of one of the island's wealthiest families. R. had been seeing two women and had fathered a one-month-old child with each of them. Unable to make up his mind between them, he hanged himself in romantic despair.
The children of smokers are more than twice as likely to smoke as the children of nonsmokers. That's a well-known fact. But … that does not mean that parents who smoke around their children set an example that their kids follow. It simply means that smokers' children have inherited genes from their parents that predispose them toward nicotine addiction.
It's not about mimicking adult behavior, which is why teenage smoking is rising at a time when adult smoking is falling. Teenage smoking is about being a teenager, about sharing in the emotional experience and expressive language and rituals of adolescence, which are as impenetrable and irrational to outsiders as the rituals of adolescent suicide in Micronesia.
What these figures tell us is that experimentation and actual hard-core use are two entirely separate things—that for a drug to be contagious does not automatically mean that it is also sticky. In fact, the sheer number of people who appear to have tried cocaine at least once should tell us that the urge among teens to try something dangerous is pretty nearly universal. This is what teens do. This is how they learn about the world, and most of the time—in 99.1 percent of the cases with cocaine—that experimentation doesn't result in anything bad happening. We have to stop fighting this kind of experimentation.
A critic looking at these tightly focused, targeted interventions might dismiss them as Band-Aid solutions. But that phrase should not be considered a term of disparagement. The Band-Aid is an inexpensive, convenient, and remarkably versatile solution to an astonishing array of problems. In their history Band-Aids have probably allowed millions of people to keep working or playing tennis or cooking or walking when they would otherwise have had to stop. The Band-Aid solution is actually the best kind of solution because it involves solving a problem with the minimum amount of effort and time and cost.
Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.