Contagious: Why Things Catch On – Breakdown Of Why Some Ads More Effective Than Others 

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Contagious: Why Things Catch On – Dissection Of Why Some Ads, TV Shows, Social Media Posts, Etc Are More Effective Than Others 

If you are a person who has wondered why certain ads seem to stick in people’s heads, or why certain products fly off the shelves, or even why some restaurants and hair care products are more successful than others, then this book is for you.  

Jonah Berger takes the reader on a fascinating journey through the ins and outs of human psychology as it relates to advertising – more specifically, why do certain types of ads work while others just flop.  Interestingly, one of the examples that he uses for a campaign that flopped in its premise or goal is the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the 1980s.  As the author points out, this campaign had the opposite of the intended effect.  

While its aspirations were noble, it completely fell short.  Instead of keeping kids away from drugs, it actually encouraged more people than ever to try drugs.  The evidence is clear decades later, and the author explains why: by showing viewers of the commercial that this is something that everyone else is doing, the lure of popularity was stronger than the message of the ads. 

If everyone else was doing it, then you’d better be cool, too.  The ad campaign is well-remembered by kids who grew up in that era, but for most people, it had very little effect on their everyday lives.  However there have been many that have attributed their own trying of drugs to the commercials, and the lure of popularity.  


According to the author, there are six different principles or methods by which to get people interested in any given product or service.  Many of the ways can be combined together, and they all function in different ways.  

The first quality is Social Currency.  Knowing about a product or service either makes the person telling someone about it look good, or it allows them to show that they are on the inside track, thus gaining credit in social currency. 

The second quality is Triggers.  These are things that can make your product or service come to someone’s mind.  This method was used by Kit Kat when they helped people to think about pairing the chocolate bar with coffee, which is something that most people think about on a daily basis.  Linking their chocolate bar with the trigger of coffee helped them sell more candy bars.  

The third method is Emotion.  As everyone knows, emotions can help advertisers sell products, but what kind of emotion, and at what intensity?  The Dove “Evolution” campaign used a lot of emotion, reminding women that those they try to emulate (in this case supermodels) are not real, and are thus an unachievable, unrealistic goal.  Using emotion, they tried to remind women that they can be happy in their own skin, as every body is beautiful in its own way.  Regardless, attempting to replicate the beauty one sees in magazine ads or in makeup videos may be impossible, so they encouraged self acceptance.  

Fourth is Public.  Making something public involves something called behavior residue.  When  you see women carrying around Victoria’s Secret bags to the grocery store or using bags from other stores when shopping, this takes a private activity (such as lingerie) and makes it public by providing a bag to carry.  The Movember cancer fundraiser used mustaches, which are public, and attached them to raising money for men’s cancer research.  

Practical Value allows people to offer something valuable to their friends and family, and also provides social currency when they are helpful to someone.  They are rewarded for sharing with appreciation.  The corn on the cob trick mentioned in the book to remove the corn silk from the ears quickly and easily offers practical value.  This video, titled “Clean Ears Everytime” by Ken Craig got millions of views because it offered practical value for something that many people need to know about.  It was a quick and simple trick, involving microwaving the ears of corn, and helped many people to ever thereafter cleanly shuck ears of corn.   

Finally, there are Stories.  Stories can help people to learn more about a product or service by weaving it into a narrative that people can relate to others.  All of these principles or steps relate to one another, such as when someone tells an interesting story about a product, thus helping others and gaining social currency. 

According to research cited in the book, seeking social currency is something people do unconsciously all the time when they are around each other. This desire for social currency causes people to seek out helpful, useful, practical information that they can share with others.  It is part of what drives social media sharing, when the sharer receives social credit in the form of likes or shares from their friends.  

An example of where an attempted Story failed is the one about Canadian Ron Bensimhon.  This person was performing a publicity stunt for an online casino.  He broke into the Olympics wearing a blue tutu and a shirt emblazoned with the casino company’s logo, and dove into the main pool.  He disrupted the entire Olympics, and was summarily arrested.  However, while his story was told many, many times, the part about the online casino was always left out.  Since the stunt was not related in any way to the casino, no one mentioned it.  Thus, the publicity stunt was a total flop by all standards.  No one even remembers that it was about a casino at all.  

This book was where Staten Islander News first learned about Please Don’t Tell, the super secret bar that has a website, Facebook page, Twitter, and Instagram, and it really isn’t a “secret” anymore, but it retains its popularity and mystique because of the initial secrecy and insider knowledge that it encourages.  

This book was an interesting read, and discussed some of the largest, most memorable ad campaigns in American history.  It was insightful, well-written, and heavily researched as well.  I look forward to reading other books by this author in the future, and highly recommend this book.  I give this book Five Stars.  

Banner Image: Contagious book cover. Image Credit – Jonah Berger



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