Jonah Berger's 'Contagious' Shouldn't Cause an Epidemic

by Daniel Rasmus

20 May 2013

As with many marketing books, Contagious verges on pop psychology.
cover art

Contagious: Why Things Catch On

Jonah Berger

(Simon & Schuster)
US: May 2013

If you think you’ve read contagious before, don’t be surprised. The ideas in Jonah Berger’s Contagious aren’t new, but they are contagious. Contagious enough that he decided to write about them again. Contagious is a synonym for viral, which, in the parlance of the Internet, means something becomes very popular, very quickly, and like a virus, it spreads to all who come in contact with it.

But contagious isn’t the only marketing metaphor over the last several years. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, from Heath Brothers Chip and Dan, wrote a better book about how to craft messages that create a lasting legacy in the mind of the consumer, using glue as a metaphor. And Malcolm Gladwell already took us to the Tipping Point in his best seller as things fall over a metaphorical cliff toward success.

Contagious readers will find six broad categories: social currency, triggers and emotion, public, practical value and stories, his take on mentor Chip Heath’s simple, unexpected, credible, emotional, detailed and memorable stories. Berger calls the framework STEPPS, as in six steps to craft contagious content.

Berger essentially wants to tell readers how to become viral, through story and advice. But he hides any important material in the narrative so deeply the reader must take his or her own notes in order to extract it. The New York Times asserted that he “adopted a ham-handed PowerPoint approach to selling his arguments,” but I disagree. The worst PowerPoint presentations consist of bullet points that summarize exactly what the speakers is saying. I wish Berger included even a summary lists at the end of each chapter with clear recommendations about how to turn what was just read into tangible value. Unlike the Heath book, which could be deconstructed around a series of “clinics” that offered examples and summaries of a chapters key lessons, Berger offer no such structured navigation, no foothold for the occasional reader, no scaffold for the reader who wants to revisit his lessons.

The last sentence of the introduction says Contagious offers “cutting edge science”, but this is a only “science” as spun by a marketing professor. Real science is more thorough and more challenging. Science recognizes the work of others through citations in the text, which Berger fails to offer. The notes section offers several relevant URLs and references to other books, papers and authors, but when reading the book, neither the author nor the editors decided to use any convention at all to alert the reader to this additional material. Only after examining the book’s structure did I come to realize that Berger did indeed do some homework, and that not all of his off-handed assertions were unsubstantiated.

As with many marketing books, Contagious verges on pop psychology. In the chapter titled ‘Emotion’, Berger goes from the Arab Spring to advice for principals and teachers, where he asks if we can predict which ideas will flare-up or snowball: “Part of the answer comes back to physiological arousal. Certain types of negativity may be more likely to escalate because they evokes arousal and are thus more likely to escalate because they evoke arousal and are thus more likely to go viral.” Berger offers no references to backup this conclusion (no, not even in the Notes), no list of “types of negativity” beyond those mentioned in the previous paragraph.

He then goes on to offer advice: “So teachers and principals should be particularly wary of hurtful rumors that carry an arousing punch because they are more likely to get passed around.” He concludes this section by saying, “Fixing these high-arousal emotions early can mitigate the negativity before it snowballs.” If only Berger recognized that the only way to fight a viral infection was with a prescription, for either rest of an anti-viral drug. Much of his advice feels like the old joke: “Doctor, doctor, every time I drink tea I get a sharp pain in my eye!” To which the Doctor replies, “Before you take a drink, take the spoon out of the cup.”

Contagious, however, is not entirely redundant. Berger pulls in new stories, offers new anecdotes. But it is redundant enough. Unlike another best selling business author, Tom Peters, Berger fails to take what has come before and reshape it into something uniquely his. Perhaps, in the end, he is following his own advice. As a fairly young writer, he may be doing what he writes in the ‘Psychology of Imitation’ section in the ‘Public’ chapter: “So to help resolve our uncertainty, we often look to what other people are doing and follow that.”

Berger needed a good editor for this book, someone who would push him to do more than write down his lecture notes in a somewhat stream of consciousness fashion, someone who would force structure and challenge details. To his own formula, I argue that the book lacks emotional connection for the reader, fails to tell the story of STEPPS in a way that builds throughout the book, and most importantly for a business book, fails to offer practical value in an accessible way.

Only in the Epilogue does the reader arrive at a type of summary that might be considered the study sheet before the final. Even this summary is hard to read, because Berger’s editor failed to catch writing elements, like mixed metaphors, that detract from the message: “Contagious products and ideas are like forest fires. They can’t happen without hundreds, if not thousands, of regular Joes and Janes passing the products or message along.” (What I think he meant to write was: ‘they can’t happen without hundreds, if not thousands of individual sparks jumping from needle-to-needle, branch-to-branch, facilitating the fire’s relentless growth.’) When Joes and Janes pass fire around in a forrest we call them arsonists, not consumers with a viral passion for a product.

If you missed The Tipping Point or Made to Stick, Berger does a credible job of collecting, sampling and collating contagious ideas, events and products, but he offers little original insight and only a weak framework upon which to hang his observations. It’s important to note, however, that Berger does make it clear that the world is dealing with a phenomenon that goes well beyond videos of kittens in tin cups or tweets about dunking Oreos in the dark during a SuperBowl power outage. If nothing else, browsing the subtitles can offer some inspirational new point references to marketers looking to imitate the success of their peers.

Contagious: Why Things Catch On


//Mixed media

The Romantic Nightmare in Alfred Döblin's 'Bright Magic'

// Re:Print

"The stories in this collection are circular, puzzling; they often end as cruelly as they do quietly, the characters and their journeys extinguished with poisonous calm.

READ the article