The Gossip Principle

Social Networks Have Always Existed, Says DDB's John Zeigler, But They Are Difficult to Harness

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This Viewpoint column has been adapted from a presentation given by John Zeigler at the Asian creative festival AdFest in Pattaya, Thailand on March 20, 2009.

HONG KONG ( -- Consumers are inundated with communication in our new digital world, yet as an industry, we may have lost our way and perhaps forgotten, that 'creativity' is, and still should be, our greatest asset.

As we look at the way the industry has changed, we also need to look back to the origins of language and how the existence of everything we do today, has originated from a single human tribal behavior--gossip.
Back in the early years, gossip was the most effective way to select a potential mate. It helped us find a trustworthy partner who would protect and provide for our family and it kept us away from those who were less desirable. Essentially, gossip ensured the continuation of our human species and is the foundation upon which all communication is built. 

Robin Dunbar, a leading anthropologist on language, goes as far to say, gossip is "like breathing" and is the foundation of all social bonding. He claims without gossip, human society would simply not exist.

We talk about social networks as being a new trend but in reality, they've always existed. Gossip is what kept the tribe intact. If we believe what Mr. Dunbar says, gossip is the glue that binds social networks. Through the use of technology, our social network has just become bigger and we've had to develop new techniques and channels to be heard--and to get people gossiping.

Traditional advertising has usually relied on a 30-second ad or a double page spread to sell a product. But gossip has never been a singular message. It is a snippet of information that is re-interpreted and manipulated as it is passed from one person to another.

Now, the ability to communicate with people, networks and whole communities is moving faster than we ever thought possible. The passing of information, even from the remotest parts of the world, can be achieved in seconds. Just like gossip, we are sharing our news in bite-sized chunks that are interpreted and re-interpreted as it moves from person to person, from a web site to a blog or from text to Twitter.

Gossip can help and harm brands
By gaining a better understanding of what influences us and persuades us, we will also understand what drives people to gossip and the immense power it yields as a medium. We can potentially harness a conversation in a controlled way or even manipulate it. By doing so, I believe we can generate real attitudinal shifts which work in our favor.

Examples of good and bad gossip in society can unlock the secrets of the way we develop our own campaigns. For example, last September in Hong Kong, text messages circulated urging Bank of East Asia customers to withdraw their funds amid fears that the bank was not sufficiently capitalized. The messages were passed from person to person, friend to friend, gaining credibility and momentum as the word spread. Yet, it was all a hoax which resulted in nearly two billion Hong Kong dollars being withdrawn and the near collapse of the bank. That's the power of bad gossip.

Gossip can also be inspiring, heart felt and genuine. Done right, it can move masses and unite entire populations. Oprah Winfrey generated positive gossip for U.S. President Barack Obama. Dubbed the "Oprah Effect," it is believed her endorsement and her influence helped persuade millions to vote, and invest, in the Obama brand.

Just like gossip evolves, to get our message across, we need to take one idea and expand it across many channels. The challenge is how to weave a single-minded idea through multi-layered messages. Ensuring the same idea, told a million different ways, is saying exactly the same thing--selling the brand story.

I'm not saying this doesn't happen. I just don't think it happens enough. When done right, however, it can impact popular culture, such as the "Cheer for China" campaign DDB created for McDonald's Corp. last year.

A single idea can change pop culture
That campaign captured the excitement of the 2008 Olympic Games and got the nation not only talking but participating. The massive traffic to the "Cheer for China" site made it the number one web site on Google's China site with no investment in search marketing.

Over 1.2 million people joined the cheering team, more than 32 million people visited the site, and 13 million people viewed the reality shows. The campaign culminated in a 1,200-member squad cheering outside Beijing's Bird Nest Olympic stadium, setting a world record for the biggest cheering squad ever. The campaign's success came down to the fact that people were talking and gossiping about it.

We should all be thinking about how we can use the theory of gossip to create new conversations and to fuel further conversations about the brands and products we work with. The power of recommendation, a positive opinion being passed from one consumer to another, is incredible. It's incomparable to any other medium. Great ads can create a swarm of interest, so great they impact our day-to-day conversations.

We need to remind ourselves that one idea is the hub, the foundation, of any great campaign's execution. Weave together messages that have a plot, a plan and multi-layered messages that play to the human condition. We need to go back to what our industry does best, making great creative ideas come to life and get people talking. That's the type of gossip we're all striving for.

John Zeigler is the Hong Kong-based president-CEO, Asia/Pacific at DDB Worldwide.

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