Age of distraction? You bet. The world is so busy and so distracted that, between the time we received the advance reading copy of Hit Makers and the book was published, the subtitle had changed from “How Things Become Popular” to what you see here.
Which is more accurate, because it illustrates two key points from the book: first, there IS a science – several, actually – behind popularity; second, there is no magic formula/blanket rule for how things become popular.
Otherwise, someone could just bottle that lightning and become successful beyond the dreams of avarice, as a certain 23rd-century physician might put it. Okay, so it was actually 18th-century dramatist Edward Moore who said that. But, in keeping with the tone of this book, we readily remember the more popular usage. I mean, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home versus the obscure tragedy The Gamester? Come on.
Derek Thompson, a senior editor with The Atlantic magazine, sets out to explore the reasons why some dark horses become hits and some sure bets become also-rans.
He weaves a compelling and fascinating narrative in this meticulously-researched effort, unearthing some mind-boggling facts or expanding on success stories we may have heard of.
So reading Hit Makers is more fulfilling if we look at it as a review of the factors and qualities that made some things winners, so that we may see an opportunity to apply the relevant knowledge to our own endeavours.
Writers, for example, may note that some hugely popular writing styles and hip-hop have an eerily (and maybe uncomfortably) similar cadence. But it’s not just a case of replicating winning formats; there must be originality to it, and it must be able to make a connection with its intended audience.
That’s where the acronym Maya comes in.
Product developers and marketers may find some credence in the Maya (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable) theory put forth by Raymond Loewy.
He was a Frenchman who came to the United States just after World War I as a young adult and became one of its most successful designers (of things as diverse as the bullet shape of modern trains, the iconic Lucky Strike cigarette pack, the Coca-Cola fountain, the Greyhound bus, Nasa’s first orbital workshop, even the markings and livery of Air Force One).
Loewy held that people wanted innovation, but also wanted a sense of familiarity. We want to be challenged and comforted at the same time. Don’t blame successful marketers and innovators; it’s just how we’re wired.
Remember a certain service provider’s Manglish tagline a while back of “same-same, but different”? That’s Maya in a nutshell.
That Thompson places Maya pretty early in the book says a lot, not just about its chronological place in the history of 20th-century hit-making, but how the theory can also account for many things we deem popular – from pop-music earworms to Pokemon Go to blockbuster movies to memes.
In this digital age, we ascribe success to the connectedness of everything. Yet “going viral” is not as virulent a process as it sounds, and things became popular way before we walked around with our faces glued to smartphones.
For instance, what is possibly the most famous lullaby in the world – Johannes Brahms’ Wiegenlied (Lullaby) – was composed specifically for just ONE person. Yet it travelled around the world long before radio or television, let alone the Internet.
Equally eyebrow-raising (in surprise or bewilderment) is the connection Thompson makes between hit-making and the spread of vampire legends. Every culture has one, and it’s because – so he tells us – every culture has held the belief that the dead can bring death.
This “dark side” of hits – the vampire myth is possibly one of the greatest hits of storytelling tradition – again reinforces the “challenge and comfort” paradox. Subconscious fear of the unknown/undead provides the challenge, and the trappings of security like home (vampires cannot enter unless invited, blah blah blah) and weapons/wards of everyday things (wood, garlic, crosses, running water, sunlight), the comfort.
The book abounds with such interesting anecdotes and accounts, and Thompson never lets the accompanying science and statistics overwhelm the sense of wonder and discovery that each new tale brings.
Looking at the contents page, you might think there’s a roadmap in here. There is, just not the kind that leads to a destination, but to a realisation instead.
Sure, we can’t bottle and sell hit-making formulas. So much else comes into the equation besides an underlying genius idea: coincidence, circumstance, confluences of events, sheer dumb luck if you will. But the constants of success stories – the courage to try, and the tenacity to keep trying – those, we can replicate.
Hit Makers: The Science Of Popularity In An Age of Distraction
Author: Derek Thompson
Publisher: Allen Lane, non-fiction