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Communications conference explores urban legends

by Carol Elliott, Director of Newswriting

September 27, 2006


Urban legends are so ubiquitous that there are myriad Web sites devoted to their debunking. Who hasn’t heard the one about the kidney heist or the Kentucky Fried Rat?

But during a recent Notre Dame conference, corporate communication professionals also learned that these folkloric tales also serve as models for effective marketing messages.

The talk by Chip Heath, professor of organization behavior at Stanford University’s graduate school of business, was part of the Tenth Conference on Corporate Communication organized by James O’Rourke, marketing professor and director of the Fanning Center for Business. The conference, held Sept. 22 and 23 in McKenna Hall, featured lectures by international experts in organizational communications. The 40 attendees included educators, corporate executives and agency chiefs.

In his lecture, “What Sticks: Six Hints from Urban Legends about Making Ideas Stick,” Heath pointed out that urban legends have “stickiness” that travels across time and culture – without the aid of a multi-million dollar advertising budget. Listeners can understand the legend, remember it and re-tell it later. And they might also be prompted to change their behavior if they accept the story as true.

Urban legends contain principles that can help communications professionals craft messages that circulate as effectively as these false legends, said Heath. These principles are:

  • Simplicity: A “sticky” idea is stripped down to its core message, which requires “relentless” prioritizing. Short is not the point. The idea should be proverbial – simple and profound, like the Golden Rule.
  • Unexpectedness: Messages should violate expectations in order to grab attention. This involves the use of surprise and raising interest, such as saying a bag of popcorn is as unhealthy as a whole day’s worth of fatty food.
  • Concreteness: Naturally sticky ideas are full of concrete images – kidneys, apples with razors – rather than ambiguous business terms such as “synergies,” “cost ratios” and “resource flow.”
  • Credibility: People have to believe a message in order for it to stick. Sticky ideas allow people to test them out for themselves. For example, in the 1980 presidential debates, Ronald Reagan asked voters simply to consider whether they were better off today than four years ago. Reagan’s method of allowing them to answer the question themselves was more effective than piling on numbers.
  • Emotions: People also need to care about a message, which involves tapping into emotions. In an anti-litter campaign, the state of Texas successfully cut the amount of roadside litter with the slogan “Don’t mess with Texas,” when campaigns with Woodsy Owl, the crying American Indian and a $500 fine failed. The slogan worked on the would-be litterbug’s inherent state pride.
  • Stories: An idea in story form rather than a list of facts and numbers is not only more memorable, but it also serves as a springboard for listeners to tell their own versions. Heath described this process as “mass customization” of a message.

Heath’s “urban legends” talk is contained in the book co-authored with his brother Dan Heath, “Made to Stick: Why some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” which is scheduled for publication by Random House in January 2007.

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