Gangnam Style, a South Korean song, has taken the world by storm, emerging as the most viewed video on YouTube. And as is wont with things successful, people have started to look for the reasons behind its success. The song has been labelled a 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 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 Kolaveri Di, which took India by storm earlier this year. Like Gangnam Style, the song had been put up on YouTube and was trending within days of its upload. But its popularity never spread beyond India and Indians. What gives? If information technology was the only criterion 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.”
In other words, it is easy to rationalise success by spinning a story around it once it has happened, but this may not quite be the reason for the success. Like the success of Kolaveri Di was attributed to its keep it simple stupid, or KISS, strategy.
But 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, a sort of 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 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. Ironically, Braun, who had proposed the show, had already been fired by then.
The history of cultural markets is full of such examples. 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 on to win eight Oscar awards. The Hangover was another such hit. The movie, made with a low budget of $35 million, went on to earn close to $468 million.
Closer home, critics had written off Sholay as dead ember and Hum Aapke Hain Kaun as an extended wedding video. We all know what happened there. In fact, scores of Hindi movies made since then are merely different versions of these two movies.
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 1,000 copies. Yet, once the book was a super hit, it was deemed as a phenomenon waiting to happen.
Maouboussin offers an explanation. “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 in a research paper titled Was Harry Potter Inevitable?
His new book adds to this. “If you are like me, you have a hard time accepting that there isn’t something just a little special about The Da Vinci Code, Titanic, or 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”.
So did Gangnam Style. It worked because a lot of people heard it. Its success was a complete ‘fluke’.
Kaul is a writer and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org