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Unsticking an Idea
by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
Since Made to Stick came out, many anxious people have asked us, "How do I unstick a sticky idea?" They want to unstick a rumor about their company or a false perception of a particular product. They want to unstick whispered mistruths about political candidates. Once, we were even asked, "How would you unstick Paris Hilton?"
Our answer on that last one was a bit slow in coming. We finally admitted, "You can't." There's no Goo Gone for ideas. Sticky ideas stick. There are millions of people who've come to follow, willingly or unwillingly, the antics of a party-girl heiress. There's no magic sticky incantation that will make us divert our attention to alternative energy, or some other worthy topic. Our best advice, on the Paris Hilton matter, was: Just wait it out. As we age, the memories will fade, and perhaps those neurons will die off entirely. (With any luck, they'll go before the "dress ourselves" neurons.)
But the question -- How do I unstick an idea? -- nagged at us. So we dug into the relevant academic research. It was a long and frustrating search, because there's not much research tackling this topic. But we did find one promising lead that was about sixty-five years old.
During World War II, social scientists had a keen patriotic interest in rumor control. About two-thirds of the rumors during were "wedge-drivers," accusations that provoked anger at various social groups (blacks, Jews, the Brits). These rumors were false and socially destructive, so the government wanted to fight back aggressively. One tactic that seemed to work against wedge-drivers was to redirect the anger and make people mad at the rumormongers. For instance, the rumor-control people would put up posters of Nazi spies spreading rumors to gullible dupes. This primed listeners to react angrily when someone spread a rumor: You're undermining the American war effort by spreading Nazi untruths!
At first, this work in wartime propaganda seemed pretty removed from the concerns of our readers, who want their ideas to stick in business or in school. But then it dawned on us: Trying to unstick an idea is a bad strategy. The World War II rumor-control people weren't trying to unstick an idea. They were shifting the turf and propagating a different, competing idea. Instead of arguing that the rumors themselves were baseless, they argued: The Nazis are trying to trick you. Are you going to fall for that?
For decades, McDonald's fought rumors that it used earthworms as filler in its burgers. At first, the company tried to unstick the idea. In 1978, McDonald's officials had denounced the rumors as "completely unfounded and unsubstantiated." (Quotes taken from Newsweek via Snopes.com, the mecca of urban-legend debunking.) Guess which idea was stickier: "earthworms in your meat patties" or "unfounded and unsubstantiated"?
By 1992, Ray Kroc, McDonald's most famous CEO, had come up with a better approach. He said, "We couldn't afford to grind worms into meat. Hamburger costs a dollar and a half a pound, and night crawlers cost six dollars!" That's nice; Kroc is fighting sticky with sticky. Notice the elements of credibility (dollars per pound) and unexpectedness (We can't afford to serve you earthworms). He might even have gone a step further and made a joke about it: "If someone ever tries to sell you a WormBurger, you should worry about them secretly filling it with beef."
Another case of fighting sticky with sticky came during the late 1990s, when e-mailed rumors about nasty computer viruses circulated constantly. According to these rumors, if you clicked the wrong link, or opened the wrong e-mail, you'd destroy your computer. One day, a young systems operator, fed up with the dozens of bogus warnings he received every day, wrote a parody of the rumors:
Warning: if you receive an e-mail with "Goodtimes" in the subject line, DO NOT OPEN IT!!!!! Goodtimes will rewrite your hard drive. It will also scramble any disks that are even close to your computer. It will recalibrate your refrigerator's coolness setting so all your ice cream goes melty. It will demagnetize the strips on your credit cards and use subspace field harmonics to scratch your CDs. It will give your ex your new phone number. It will mix Kool-Aid into your fish tank. It moves your car randomly around parking lots so you can't find it.
The parody became a viral hit, as popular as the rumors it mocked. Bill Ellis, a folklorist at Penn State Hazleton, has documented that, as this parody spread, the apocalyptic virus warnings faded away. The parody cleverly provided people with a schema of an overhyped warning. Afterward, if you received more e-mails that fit the schema -- full of overheated language and dire warnings -- you knew to laugh rather than get worried. The young systems operator fought a sticky idea with a stickier idea.
But sometimes the best way to fight a sticky idea is not with a message at all, even a stickier one. Sometimes what you need is a sticky action. Consider the dawn of the automobile era. As described in Hayagreeva Rao's book Market Rebels: How Activists Make or Break Radical Innovations, the gasoline-powered car was greeted, at first, with skepticism and outright fear. People called it a "devilish contraption." It spawned rabid opposition. The Farmer's Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania, for example, demanded that cars traveling at night on country roads "must send up a rocket every mile, then wait ten minutes for the road to clear. If a driver sees a team of horses, he is to pull to one side of the road and cover his machine with a blanket or dust cover that has been painted to blend into the scenery." One technologist of the time scoffed at the idea that gasoline engines would ever be widely adopted: "You can't get people to sit on an explosion."
That's a sticky idea: simple, concrete, emotional. If you were an entrepreneurial automaker, how would you combat it? Well, the dumb thing to do would be to try to "unstick it" with a message: Go ahead, try telling potential customers, "Don't worry, you're actually sitting on a contained explosion." Oh, and all the top automotive authorities say your fears are "unfounded and unsubstantiated."
Auto enthusiasts chose to act. They created a series of "reliability races" in which automobile inventors would bring their autos together and have them compete on endurance, fuel economy, and hill-climbing ability. Reliability contests were one part product testing and one part festival. The first contest took place in 1895, and by 1912 they had been discontinued, because cars were an accepted social reality. What happened in between was that the automakers gave thousands of people the chance to see firsthand the promise of automobiles -- to see that there was nothing to fear. (In fact, the acclaim Henry Ford received from his performance in the reliability contests enabled him to launch the Ford Motor Company in 1903.)
Note that the auto enthusiasts didn't try to argue their way out of the fears; they acted their way out. They chose a demonstration that was Unexpected (Until today I thought cars were dangerous and unreliable); Concrete (Did you see it take that hill?); Emotional (I can see myself becoming one of those liberated drivers); and Credible (I saw it all with my own eyes!).
So how do you unstick an idea? First of all, be realistic. It took seventeen years for reliability races to establish public trust in the automobile. The rumor about earthworms in McDonald's hamburgers still circulates in some places, despite Ray Kroc's brilliant response. Sticky ideas endure, and, as we've seen in the book, that can be a great thing. It can also be a real nuisance if you're working against a sticky idea that's false.
Our advice is simple: Fight sticky ideas with stickier ideas. We hope we've given you some useful tools for making your ideas sticky. And if you want to unstick Paris Hilton, maybe you should be looking for another fame-hungry heiress to take her place? (We're not sure heiress races will do the trick.)
[The above is an excerpt from the book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.]
Many more articles in Creativity & Innovation in The CEO Refresher Archives