Why’s the world going gaga over Gangnam Style?

Vivek Kaul
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])