This year’s top video on YouTube has been Gangnam Style, a South Korean song which has taken the world by storm. And as happens with anything that becomes successful people have started to look for reasons behind its success. The song has been labeled the crossover from the East to the West something that took actor Jackie Chan three decades to achieve.
One article looking into the success of the song pointed out “Yet, its rise to universality is no fluke. Its success occurs when the world is shifting in radical ways, at a time when individuals, empowered by the information technology, can change world history”.
The problem with this argument is that the same information technology was available to other songs and artists. Take the case of the home grown Kolaveri Di which took India by storm early this year. Like Gangnam Style the song had been put up on YouTube and it was trending within days of its upload. But its popularity never spread beyond India and Indians. How do you explain that? If information technology was the only criteria then Kolaveri Di should have been as big a hit as Gangnam Style, perhaps even bigger given that a sufficient number of Indians live in all corners of the globe.
So what is happening here? As Paul Ormerod explains in his new book Positive Linking – How Networks Can Revolutionise the World “As usual, we could in principle always tell a story after the event which purports to the account for the much further greater popularity of one video compared to another.” What this basically means is that it is easy to rationalise success by spinning a story around it once it has happened. But that doesn’t mean that those were the reasons for the success. Like the success of Kolaveri Di was attributed to its KISS (keep it simple stupid) strategy.
But the point is if identifying success was so easy we would all be doing it. Michael Mauboussin has a very interesting example in his soon to be released book The Success Equation – Untangling Skill and Luck in Business, Sports and Investing. Llyod Braun, Chairman of ABC Entertainment Group had proposed a show called Lost. It was a cross between Cast Away, a movie that featured Tom Hanks stranded on a desert island, and Survivor, a reality TV show about contestants who compete with one another in the wilderness and then vote to remove members until only one person is left. “Michael Eisner, the CEO of Disney…heard the pitch and rated Loss a 2 on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being the worst…Eisner later called the show “terrible”…Despite Eisner’s dim view of the show Lost was a smash success…Lost ran for six reasons and improved ABC’s slumping ratings and profits,” writes Mauboussin. The irony was that Braun who had proposed the show had already been fired by then.
So the history of cultural markets is full of such examples which were written off. As Duncan J Watts writes in Everything is Obvious – Once You Know the Answer “The history of cultural markets is crowded with examples of future blockbusters – Elvis, Star Wars, Seinfeld . Harry Potter, American Idol – that publishers and movie studios left for read while simultaneously betting big on total failures.”
Another great example is Slumdog Millionaire which almost did not release and went to DVD straight away. The film went onto to win eight Oscar awards. The Hangover was another such hit. Made at a low budget of $35million, the movie went onto earn close to $468million. Closer to home critics wrote of Sholay as dead ember and Hum Aapke Hain Koun as an extended wedding video. We all know what happened there. And since then scores of Hindi movies which are versions of these two movies have been made.
JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was rejected by 12 publishers till Bloomsbury agreed to publish it. The first print run of the book was 1000 copies. Once the book was a super-hit it was deemed as a phenomenon waiting to happen. Michael Maouboussin explains this tendency in a research paper titled Was Harry Potter Inevitable? “Our society often associates success with quality. In a fiercely competitive market, the thinking goes, only the best products rise to the surface. Once a product is a hit, whether a blockbuster movie or a bestselling book, we readily point to the attributes that make it so appealing,” he writes.
Maouboussin gives a more detailed explanation for the phenomenon in his new book. “If you are like me, you have a hard time accepting that there isn’t just a little special about The Da Vinci Code, Titanic, or the Mona Lisa. The very fact that they are so wildly popular seems to be all the evidence you need to conclude that they have some special qualities that makes them stand above all the rest. But all three were surprises. Our minds are expert at wiping out surprises and creating order, and order dictates that these products are special.”
Hence, the reasons highlighted have nothing to do with the success, typically. People like the product (be it a book, a song or a movie) initially and once the product becomes slightly popular they tend to become more popular because they are popular. This is referred to as the Matthew Effect after a verse in the Gospel of Matthew “For whosever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance.”
But that clearly doesn’t stop people from coming up with more and more explanations for success. As Watt puts it “In the end, the only honest explanation may be the one given by the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold because lots of people bought it.” Similarly Gangnam Style worked because a lot of people heard it. Its success was a total ‘fluke’.
The article originally appeared in the Daily News and Analysis dated October 22, 2012. http://www.dnaindia.com/money/report_whys-the-world-going-gaga-over-gangnam-style_1754813
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and he can be reached at [email protected])
Eats Shoots and Leaves
What Ek Tha Tiger has in common with Mona Lisa, Harry Potter and Rajinikanth
Salman Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger releasing on August 15 is expected to do roaring business. A famous film critic who runs a film trade magazine feels the movie will break new grounds and has the potential to earn more than Rs 200 crore.
Once the film has done the roaring business you will find film critics, analysts and even you and me giving all kinds of reasons for the success.
The film was shot in Turkey, Ireland, Cuba and Iraq, countries that most Indian movies haven’t been shot before.
For once, Katrina wasn’t just arm candy.
Unlike other Salman movies this one really had a story.
Bhai was doing what he does best: beating up the baddies.
The film had an uninterrupted six day long weekend (starting from August 15, the Independence Day to August 20, the day of Eid).
All Salman Khan movies releasing during the Eid weekend do well.
And so on.
But these will be explanations about something that has already happened after it has happened. The film may have worked because of all of these reasons or none of them. We really wouldn’t know.
Lets take the case of the famous painting Mona Lisa to understand this phenomenon in a little more detail. The painting was commissioned by a wealthy silk merchant. He wanted Leonardo da Vinci to paint his wife Lisa Gherardini del Giocindo. By the time da Vinci got around to finishing the painting in 1519, nearly 16 years later, he had moved to France from Italy. Hence, Lisa Giocindo nor her husband ever got around to seeing what has turned out to be most famous painting in the world.
The painting hangs at the Musée du Louvre in Paris. Nearly 80% of the 6 million visitors who come to the museum annually, come to see the Mona Lisa. But the interesting thing is that for most of the five centuries of its existence the Mona Lisa was an obscure painting. As Duncan J Watts writes in Everything is Obvious – Once You Know the Answer “for centuries, the Mona Lisa, was a relatively obscure painting languishing in the private residences of kings…even when it was moved to the Louvre after the French revolution, it did not attract as much attention as the works of other artists.”
It was only when an Italian named Vincezo Peruggia stole the painting in 1911 that the painting became famous. Peruggia managed to hide the painting for two years but was arrested while trying to sell it to an Italian museum. The painting came back to the Louvre.
Since then the painting has attracted large crowds. It has also led to a situation where people have explained the reasons behind its popularity. Some have talked about the smile and the novel technique employed by da Vinci to produce so gauzy a finish. Some others about the play of light and so on. As Watts writes “To oversimplify only slightly, the Mona Lisa is the most famous painting in the world because it is the best, and although it might have taken us a while to figure this out, it was inevitable that we would. And that’s why so any people are puzzled when they first set eyes on the Mona Lisa.”
They wonder what the fuss is all about. As Watts explains “Of course, most of us, when faced with this moment of dissonance, simply shrug our shoulders and assume that somebody wiser than us has seen things that we can’t see…It sounds as if we’re assessing the quality of work of art in terms of its attributes, but in fact we’re doing the opposite – deciding first which painting is the best, and only then inferring from its attributes the metrics of quality.”
A more recent phenomenon is that of Harry Potter which has been a smashing success. But Joanne “Jo” Rowling, better known as J K Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, had a tough time finding a publisher for the series.
In 1995, she finished the first Harry Porter book Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was rejected by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury agreed to publish it. The publisher wasn’t really optimistic about the book and the initial print run was 1000 copies, of which 500 were distributed to libraries. The advance Rowling got for the book was £1500. The book and its sequels were a smashing success. According to the Forbes magazine Rowling was the first person become to dollar billionaire by writing books.
Of course after the success of the book many reasons have been pointed about why Harry Potter was successful and was a phenomenon waiting to happen. Michael Maouboussin explains this in a research paper titled Was Harry Potter Inevitable? “Our society often associates success with quality. In a fiercely competitive market, the thinking goes, only the best products rise to the surface. Once a product is a hit, whether a blockbuster movie or a
bestselling book, we readily point to the attributes that make it so appealing..” he writes.
What this basically means is that it is easy to rationalize success once it has happened. But that doesn’t mean that those were the reasons for the success. Mauboussin calls this the halo effect or ‘our proclivity to attach attributes to what has succeeded, solely because of the success. The halo effect creates substantial distortion in our thinking.”
A similar phenomenon is now playing out with E L James’ Fifty Shades of Gray which has outsold Harry Potter. “Sorry Harry, it looks like you’re losing your magic. Erotic novel “Fifty Shades of Grey” outsold all seven Harry Potter books on Amazon.co.uk on Wednesday, making author E.L. James the website’s best-selling writer ever,” wrote the Sunday Times of London recently. A small cottage industry has sprung up trying to analyse the success of this book which many have dubbed as “mummy porn”.
The film actor Rajinikanth is another great example of this. Realms have been written on trying to explain his stupendous success. But as Manu Joseph wrote in the Open “Rajinikanth is another proof that not everything can be analysed just because there is something called analysis. There is no reason why Rajnikanth exists, there is no reason why he did not retire as a Marathi bus conductor, and no reason why he instead became the Superstar who can have theatres go up in flames if he is ever killed at the end of a film. There is nothing in him or in Tamilians that explains his fame. He is the very end of analysis. Some things happen for no reason. And it is no coincidence that the people who really love him are people who do not know that there is a form of employment called analysis.”
To conclude, the explanations people come up with to explain the success are at times largely irrelevant. Watt explains it the best when he says “Ultimately…it may simply not be possible to say why…the Harry Potter books sold more than 350 million copies within 10 years…In the end, the only honest explanation may be the one given by the publisher of Lynne Truss’s surprise bestseller, Eats, Shoots and Leaves, who, when asked to explain its success, replied that “it sold because lots of people bought it.” Similarly Ek Tha Tiger will run because a lot of people will watch it.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on August 10,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/bollywood/what-ek-tha-tiger-has-in-common-with-rajinikanth-harry-potter-413290.html/)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer who can be reached at [email protected])