It is a fascinating trawl through almost 200 years of media, technology and popular culture – told with acuity and good humour. We hear insightful stories about everything from Brahms, Bill Haley and Hero’s Journey mythologist Joseph Campbell, to Star Wars, Fifty Shades of Grey and the birth of brand Disney.
Thompson’s core thesis is that “familiarity beats novelty and distribution beats content.” In other words, the majority of us prefer familiar surprises because that inkling of recognition gives us a jolt of meaning. That’s point one. A good example is how writers try to catch the attention of film producers with high-concept pitches that have a certain level of “optimal newness”, as Thompson puts it. So Aliens is “Jaws in space” and Titanic is “Romeo & Juliet on a sinking ship”. This approach also applies to other industries. Think of Uber as “Airbnb for cars”. The "Uber for…" becomes the shorthand, and so on.
The chapter on repetition in the context of songwriting and speechwriting is very interesting, particularly for all you language students out there. Using famous examples of rhetorical devices such as epistrophe (repeating words at the end of a sentence as in Obama’s “Yes, we can”) and antimetabole (an inversion such as JFK’s “Ask not who your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”) he demonstrates how hooks hold power over us.
“There is good and bad in this,” Thompson cautions. “By turning arguments into spoken music – and making poetry out of policy – antimetabole and its cousins can make important and complicated ideas go down easily. But they can also wave a magic wand over frivolous and dubious ideas, turning something questionable into something catchy.”
Raymond Loewy is an important figure in the book. Thompson considers him to be perhaps the most significant commercial artist of the 20th Century, the man behind the Exxon logo, Lucky Strike pack, Greyhound bus, modern tractor, vacuum cleaner refrigerator… Loewy had a theory called MAYA (Most Advanced Yet Acceptable), which again highlights that tension between the new and the familiar, or neophobia and neophilia in Loewy’s words.
Thompson’s second key point burns the illusion of "going viral". Word of mouth is still a highly influential factor in determining what becomes popular. Those one-to-one moments. But, using Fifty Shades of Grey as his example (a book that first made its mark on mini-network fanfiction.net), the real amplification effect kicks in when traditional media outlets such as the New York Times and NBC’s Today Show broadcast to tens of million people. “A real virus spreads only between people,” explains Thompson. “But a ‘viral’ idea can spread between broadcasts.”
For all his promising analysis, Thompson does cop out a bit. There is no magic formula, just a brutal truth – “culture is chaos”. Hit making is often about timing and luck. Take Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’, for example. “Sometimes a rock song comes out on the radio in 1954, and tens of thousands of Americans hear it and don’t buy the record,” he writes. “Then in 1955 the song comes out again, for a slightly different audience in a new medium. The context shifts, a chain reaction of improbable events occurs, and [it] becomes the national anthem of rock and roll.”
Nonetheless, credit to the author for joining the dots with such authority and prime-time gusto. Thompson will have you jumping on to YouTube in seconds, unleashing a flood of ideas. One of them might just catch on.