Commentary

Why Marketers Love Malcolm Gladwell -- & Why They Shouldn't

Marketers love Malcolm Gladwell. They love his pithy, reductionist approach to popular science: his tendency to sacrifice verity for the sake of a good "just-so” story. And in doing this, what is Malcolm Gladwell but a marketer at heart? No wonder our industry is gaga over him. We love anyone who can oversimplify complexity down to the point where it can be appropriated as yet another marketing “angle."

Take the entire influencer advertising business, for instance. Earlier this year, I saw an article saying more and more brands are expanding their influencer marketing programs.  We are desperately searching for that holy nexus where social media and those super-connected “mavens” meet. While the idea of influencer marketing has been around for a while, it really gained steam with the release of Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point,” in 2000, and seems to have been building ever since.

As others have pointed out, Gladwell has made a habit of taking one narrow perspective that promises to “play well” with the masses, supporting it with just enough science to make it seem plausible,and then enshrining it as a “Law.”

Take the "Law of the Few," for instance, from "The Tipping Point": "The success of any kind of social epidemic is heavily dependent on the involvement of people with a particular and rare set of social gifts.” You could literally hear the millions of ears attached to marketing heads perk up when they heard this. “All we have to do,” the reasoning went, “is reach these people, plant a favorable opinion of our product, and give them the tools to spread the word. Then we just sit back and wait for the inevitable epidemic to sweep us to new heights of profitability.”

Certainly commercial viral cascades do happen all the time. And, in hindsight, if you look long and hard enough, you’ll probably find what appears to be a “maven” near ground zero. From this perspective, Gladwell’s “Law of the Few” seems to hold water. But that’s exactly the type of seductive reasoning that makes “just-so” stories so misleading. You mistakenly believe that because it happened once, you can predict when it’s going to happen again.

Gladwell’s indiscriminate use of the term “law” contributes to this common deceit. A law is something that is universally applicable and constant. When a law governs something, it plays out the same way, every time. And this is certainly not the case in social epidemics.

If Gladwell’s books have become marketing and pop-culture bibles, the same, sadly, cannot be said for Duncan Watts’ books. I’m guessing almost everyone reading this column has heard of Malcolm Gladwell. I further guess that almost none of you have heard of Duncan Watts.  And that’s a shame. But it’s completely understandable.

Watts describes his work as determining the “role that network structure plays in determining or constraining system behavior, focusing on a few broad problem areas in social science such as information contagion, financial risk management, and organizational design.”

You started nodding off halfway through that sentence, didn’t you?

As Watts shows in his books, “Firms spent great effort trying to find 'connectors' and 'mavens' and to buy the influence of the biggest influencers, even though there was never causal evidence that this would work.”

But the work required to get to this point is not trivial. While he certainly aims at a broad audience, Watts does not read like Gladwell. His answers are not self-evident. There is no pithy bon mot that causes our neural tumblers to satisfyingly click into place. Watts’ explanations are complex, counterintuitive, occasionally ambiguous and often non-conclusive -- just like the world around us. As he explains in his book “Everything is Obvious Once You Know the Answer," it’s easy to look backwards to find causality. But it’s not always right.

Marketers love simplicity. We love laws. We love predictability. That’s why we love Gladwell. But in following this path of least resistance, we’re straying further and further from the real world.

8 comments about "Why Marketers Love Malcolm Gladwell -- & Why They Shouldn't".
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  1. Doug Garnett from Protonik, LLC, May 24, 2016 at 1:46 p.m.

    When I read Gladwell's profile of Ron Popeil it connected:  Malcolm Gladwell as the skills of an Atlantic Boardwalk carnival barker but he does his work under the "respectable" auspices of published author. He eliminated any reference to Popeil's incredible record of failure - a record that is as critical to understanding Popeil as are his successes.

    So it's great to have someone else call him out. But I've been shocked by how powerfully he pulls marketers toward him. Maybe it's that he tells them what they want to hear ("marketing is easy and cheap - you just have to play the right tricks" along with "what marketers say they know is bunk - just listen to me and you'll have freedom").

    Marketing is getting its just deserts for having listened, though, as brands are suffering from hyper targeting, viral mythology, and ignoring the things that would do the work they need - all because Malcolm says it's okay.

  2. Jeanne Byington from J M Byington & Associates, Inc., May 24, 2016 at 2:20 p.m.


    No doubt what you write about Gladwell, who is fun to read, is accurate and that his advice may be too simple and pat to be true or followed to the letter. But who should be followed blindly? I question any marketer who pins an entire strategy on one person's concept.



    But doesn't a writer or thinker, like Watts, owe it to his/her readers to edit a sentence such as the one you shared: "role that network structure plays in determining or constraining system behavior, focusing on a few broad problem areas in social science such as information contagion, financial risk management, and organizational design." If he took time to revise his writing, hired an editor, or collaborated with a writer, he might be better heard. I don't suggest pithy copy filled with bon mots. There are countless writers, like David McCullough, Jon Meacham or Geoffrey Ward, who digest massive amounts of material they pour into a book and don't expect readers to take as much time to figure out what they mean as it does to read what they've written. That approach smacks of the trend to have consumers do all the work, whether it's download and print the instructions or import the computer programs or assemble the furniture or press 1, 2 and 5 to get a live customer service voice on the phone. And who has the time?


  3. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, May 24, 2016 at 3:59 p.m.

    Jeanne - Watts is a very able writer. His prose is accessible - but he is an academic at heart and so doesn't have a habit of jumping to satisfying conclusions, unlike Gladwell. Watts tells things as they appear to be, backed up with empirical evidence, rather than as we wish them to be.

  4. Ted Wright from Fizz, May 25, 2016 at 9:33 a.m.

    "Out of my gourd" for sure! So you are blaming Malcolm for the way that marketers use his writings and then hold up the highly discredited Duncan Watts (people who are academically lauded often leave an Ivy League post, in this case at Columbia, to go be a data scientist at Yahoo) as the counter argument? From Ed Keller to the 10+ years of working with Influencers by various members of WOMMA, clearly Influencers exist, are highly valuable, and have been the lynch pin to what Fast Company referred to as “some of the greatest marketing successes in the last 25 years”. Just because some vendors out there are selling repackaged blogger outreach and hackneyed Klout retreads as “influncer marketing” doesn’t make Influencers less real or effect, it just means that hot marketing categories often get charlatans involved so brand managers have to do their due diligence.

  5. Rick Monihan from None, May 25, 2016 at 10:49 a.m.

    Never been a fan of Gladwell.  The flaws in his reasoning are pretty evident, and your focus on the "Law of the Few" is spot on.  It's true, that a few well-placed and respected people can have a viral influence.  However, Gladwell routinely shoves other factors to the side, such attainment of critical mass.  If something like that is missing, it is very rare that the "Law of the Few" can have the effects he attributes to it.  So basically, for this "Law" to work, a substantial number of people have to have already discovered something and then "the Few" can lead to a massive expansion of its impact.
    It's like his 10,000 hours to be an expert.  If I spend the next 10,000 hours focusing on being a pro golfer, I may get very good at it, but my skill set is such I doubt those 10,000 hours would help me gain the pro tour.  But hey - if you have a particular skill set, 10,000 hours may well help put you in the upper echelons of expertise and performance.  Nobody wants to discredit the role of perseverance, hard work, and desire.  But at some point, if the skills are lacking you need to move on.  So yes, it's good to know hard work pays off - but don't oversimplify and say that's all you need.  Gladwell clearly says that hard work is worth more than talent when he says "the problem with this view is that the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role of innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play."  Basically, he's saying yeah talent's OK - but focus more on preparation.  Sorry, it really doesn't work that way.


    Similarly, his "Iron Law" about hockey players has been disproven time and again.  While early in life the January born players have an advantage, he suggested 40% of all players would be born in the first 3 months of the year.  But studies have shown, after youth hockey ends, this "Iron Law" falls apart.  In fact, 29% of NHL players, not 40% are born in that period.  Slightly higher than the 25% which each 3 month period would presumably offer, but not anywhere near 40%.


    Gladwell oversimplifies time and again and misuses statistics to suit his story.


  6. Kenneth Hittel from Ken Hittel, May 25, 2016 at 3:04 p.m.

    "Marketers love simplicity. We love laws. We love predictability. That’s why we love Gladwell." Sounds kind of like a Gladwellian "Law," no? Please qualify your generalizations. 

  7. Tobi Elkin from MediaPost, May 26, 2016 at 10:19 a.m.

    Great column, Gord. Malcom Gladwell = Marketer. I see lots of relentless self-promoters taking similar simple ideas and blowing them up into big phenomenons. We all love elegant simplicity but do people like Gladwell just glom onto the next big thing well before it becomes that, then blow the ideas so they're really big and become NYT bestsellers and the most buzzed about ideas since....?

  8. Gordon Hotchkiss from Out of My Gord Consulting, May 26, 2016 at 10:54 a.m.

    A few additional comments..

    First..Kenneth - you're absolutely right. Mea culpa.

    Now..to Ted. Absolutely word of mouth and influencers is a huge factor  - my point - and Duncan Watt's point - is it's not nearly as simply or predictable as Gladwell makes it out to be. Anyone could be an influencer, given the right context. You cite a Fast Company article defending influencer marketing - here's one on the opposite side worth a read: http://www.fastcompany.com/641124/tipping-point-toast. Watts discredited? Not really by any credible academic source - just a lot of marketers pissed off because he's poking holes in their business model. And he's certainly got a lot more empirical evidence behind him than Mr. Gladwell.

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