Is there word of mouth?

To judge by the words written on the subject, the most sought after and most prized outcome of professional marketing efforts is recommendation by word of mouth.

Every PR and Adman in the world wants to spark a storm of gossip about their client that will spread like wildfire, from one mouth to millions, like a human chain reaction. On the internet, in blogs and websites, everyone wants their message to ‘go viral’ – spreading an epidemic of approval.

And it’s not just PR and Ad people selling this dream. Writers and publishers want news of their book launches to spread by word of mouth; boy bands want their latest single to go viral, Hollywood producers want audiences to tell everyone about the latest film in the hope that it will become a blockbuster by public acclaim.

Writing, painting, music, all have their seminal stories about the effect of word of mouth. Often it’s a book, a film, a painting, a piece of music, that was rejected not once but many times over by publishers, producers, the art world or record labels. But despite this unreflecting rejection by professional philistines, goes the narrative, the true merits of the work were apparent to the common man or woman. They tell their friends, who spread the word and in this way the work is rescued from the dustbin of history to become what it often thereafter called a ‘cult classic’.

Sherlock Holmes was famously rejected by more than 100 publishers. Even J.K. Rowling’s schoolboy wizard was rejected many times. The Beatles were turned down by EMI. But luckily for us, the narrative goes, one or two bright individuals recognised the genius of Harry Potter, of Lennon and MacCartney, and the rest is history.

This narrative is so well worn that it is rarely challenged. But I want to ask the heretical question: is there really such a thing as word of mouth? Or is it all just part of marketing mythology?

I started by asking myself if I could recall any instance when someone told me about a book, or film, or other product. Not a professional reviewer in a newspaper, not a TV or Internet ad, not a blogger or a website, or a spam email but a flesh and blood person who flagged up some work that I had never heard of and which I, in turn, raved about to others.

I thought for a while that I had recalled one such occasion – when I stayed in Yorkshire with my friend Gillian and she told me about a book she had just read – all about a theme park which restores dinosaurs from ancient DNA. It sounded like a brilliantly original premise. But when she added, “And Steven Spielberg is going to make a film of it.” I realised that her recommendation wasn’t original – she’d read about the making of Jurassic Park somewhere and that most likely happened because of the advance publicity that Spielberg and his studios put in hand.

Then I tried to think of the opposite instance: where I had raved about something I’d seen and been responsible for ever-widening ripples of appreciation of this film or that book. Again, I drew a blank. The only people who have ever responded to my recommendations are those who were merely agreeing with me because they too had enjoyed the film or the book. I can’t think of a single case where my recommendation had resulted in converting someone.

I decided to dig a little deeper and looked again at the mythology surrounding “cult” classics. Take films for instance. Some films have achieved almost legendary status as productions made on a shoestring, which the studios hated and ignored but which were rescued to become classics by the man and woman in the street. Films like The Blues Brothers (1980), Hairspray (1988) Little Shop of Horrors ( 1986) and The Rocky Horror Show (1975).

The facts (from the IMDB) tell a rather different story. The Blues Brothers had a budget estimated around $27,000,000 and within a couple of years had grossed $54,200,000 in the US and $115,229,890 worldwide.

John Waters’s Hairspray had a budget around $2,000,000, and far from being ignored did some $577,287 in the US on its opening weekend alone in just 79 Screens. Within months it had grossed
$6,351,909 in the US.

Little Shop of Horrors had a budget estimated at $25,000,000, took nearly $4 million in its first week
And grossed $34,656,704 by 1987. The Rocky Horror Picture Show had a budget estimated at $1,200,000 and so far has grossed $139 million in the US alone.

Certainly one can argue that the studio executives who read the original scripts of Hairspray and Rocky didn’t see the potential of the story and kept tight hold of the purse strings – but this is something that happens with more than half the films made.

Recently, my daughter and I visited the National Gallery. While there we stumbled across an exhibition by a Norwegian artist unknown to me, Peder Balke, whose ethereal arctic landscapes are stunning. I even blogged about him here, but with the usual result. The recommendation glowed for a few moments, then flickered and went out.

In one sense this is not surprising. How could I possibly convey the intense emotional response I felt to a great painting or great book, even if I’m face to face with a friend. Why should someone go to all the trouble and expense of travelling into Town to see a few paintings they may not even like? I don’t myself respond to all the publicity I see in the weekend papers from respected professional critics – why should anyone listen to me?

One reason that I’m questioning the received wisdom about word of mouth is that currently the Internet is infested with various kind of digital consultant, expert or guru, especially in the field of video, promising prospective clients that their products or services will go viral on the strength of a YouTube video campaign. I have deep doubts about these promises. In fact, I may as well put my cards on the table right now. I don’t believe there is such a thing as word of mouth. The reality is that when we are influenced, it is by paid advertising and PR.

Sometimes, this influencing process is simple and straightforward. No sinister conspirators whisper in our ears when we are asleep. They simply work to give prominence to a limited selection of production from which we then choose.

In the 1990s there was a popular TV series titled “Lovejoy” about an eponymous antique dealer. Lovejoy is supposed to be a “divvy” – someone who on instinct alone can tell whether an antique is real or fake. Lovejoy has a gormless twerp of an assistant named Eric who, when he is not clumsily interfering with his boss’s plans, listens to the latest pop music on his Sony Walkman. “I’m a divvy, too,” Eric boasts as he plays air guitar accompanying the latest boy band. “I can always tell whether a new single is going to make it.”

The joke is, of course, that Eric is listening to Radio One or a similar station, so all he hears are singles that have already passed through many sieves, been subjected to many layers of scrutiny and judgment by music professionals. He isn’t so much a music divvy as a passive consumer of musical fodder tailored to his tastes. He is penned in with the other sheep, telling himself he is a good judge of grass.

The myth is kept alive partly because we are taught that all that is greatest in art, music, literature, survives as the classic culture we inherit: Mozart, Shakespeare, Dickens, Wordsworth. What we forget is that these artists – brilliant and talented though they may have been – are part of our cultural heritage only because they were the commercially most successful of their day. Thousands flocked to the Globe Theatre to be spattered with pigs blood, paying their groat to enter. Dickens sold hundreds of thousands of weekly instalments. Mozart could fill a hall to capacity. This is why they have lasted – it is the fame of their commercial success, rather than word of mouth acclaim.

By contrast Vivaldi – arguably as a great a musical talent as Mozart – was forgotten for centuries and his “Four Seasons” was re-discovered by pure chance by a visitor to some remote monastery library. How many other Vivaldis remain covered in dust? There is no way of telling because there is no mechanism that identifies any form of success other than commercial.

What about the present and the global blogosphere – isn’t it the most influential bloggers who tell us what to like? As a blogger, I would love to answer “yes”.

The truth is, as Hollywood screenwriting legend William Goldman said, ““Nobody knows anything…… Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.”

To compensate for their ignorance, film studios, book publishers, art galleries, play a numbers game. They throw a lot of mud at the wall knowing that some of it will stick. They then claim credit for the successes  while quietly forgetting about the failures.

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