Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Made To Stick

Chip and Dan Heath examine the reasons behind the success of some advertising messages.

Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. Chip and Dan Heath. Random House. 291 pages.

Why do some ideas stick? Many of us have heard and then repeated stories that may have possessed some immediate believability but were later refuted or contradicted by facts.

A few weeks ago, for example, author Seth Godin featured a brief riff on his blog about the supposed failure of Chevrolet's Nova automobile in Latin America due to the ''fact'' the its name means ''doesn't go'' in Spanish and buyers stayed away as a result. With my facility in that language mostly limited to dining selections, I'd always believed the story, but Godin, citing the reliable rumor debunker www.snopes.com said it ain't so. But I'd been willing to believe it because it made "sense.''

Another story, featured in this new book by the Heath Brothers (not the jazz musicians, alas) involves a man, seduced and abandoned, who then awakens in an ice-filled bathtub. He calls the police, who ask him if there's a tube protruding from his back. He answers in the affirmative and is told that he's been victimized by an organ thief who has made off with his kidneys.

Never happened.

Yet the story is still repeated. Other fables, like Al Gore supposedly claiming to have invented the Internet — which he never said — are also repeated because, well, they ''stick,'' meaning they meet several standards that cause us to accept them as if they were the truth.

According to the Heaths, there are six key qualities that make an idea stick: simplicity, unexpectedness, concreteness, credibility, emotion and story.

Simplicity is obvious; if it's a complicated thing, it's too easy to misunderstand or forget. Unexpectedness is no surprise either; sharp copywriters know that the best way to get a point across is to catch people when they least expect it. Writer and advertising executive Roy Williams likes to point to a part of the brain, ''Broca's area.'' Apparently when ideas are presented in an unexpected way, they get past our defenses through there.

Ditto with emotion. The Heaths use the Lone Star State's successful ''Don't Mess With Texas'' anti-littering campaign as an example of using emotion to promote acceptance of unappealing or unexciting ideas.

Stories are a powerful means of communicating ideas, too, as they contain a variety of symbols, images and values presented in ways that resonate with different cultural groups possessing similar values.

In addition to the discussion of their six keys, the Heaths present quite a few examples to illustrate them. But that's not all; they provide a number of successful templates that they say can be populated with specific ideas. It's not an entirely plug-and-play proposition; some assembly is required, as well as making sure that all the pieces ''fit'' and make sense.

Their tone throughout is very low key and positive, but the content is pretty powerful. I've heard and read much of this stuff before, but by placing it all into this pleasant and persuasive context, a lot of the familiar ideas seem to have a bit more authority and persuasiveness.

What do you know? They stick!

Originally published in The Miami Herald

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