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The power of tittle-tattle


Greetings Anthillians! I’ve been sipping a glass of fine wine and contemplating the grapevine. Word of mouth has to be the most powerful form of advertising. How else could a brief conversation by the water cooler precipitate the purchase of a $300 dollar bottle of plonk? Professional antagoniser, Ray Beatty, is on the case.

(anonymous ant esquire)

The Antagonist speaks…


aa17-aug-sep-2006-the-power-of-tittle-tattleThink about all the great words that have been spoken in history, from the lectures of Aristotle to Shakespeare’s soliloquies to the broadcasts of Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King. Ah, but these noble words are very much in the minority.

According to psychology researchers, 66 percent of all human dialogue consists of gossip. Yes, billions of words of tittle-tattle, chit chat, ruminations, speculations, did you see last night’s Desperate Housewives, how’s your daughter, did you avagoodweegend? – an all-consuming verbal intercourse.

Of the 20,000 words we are supposed to utter each day, most of them are shared around the water cooler, in the coffee shop, on the telephone and through the Internet.

This chit-chat is light and ephemeral, quickly spoken and just as quickly forgotten, yet this is the mighty unseen power in the smart marketer’s armoury. In the advertising trade we have our own term for it: word of mouth. Anybody in business knows what a powerful tool word of mouth is in the battle for market share. It takes many forms and it is infuriatingly hard to control.

It can’t be done by ordinary PR. However, scrawling a slogan on the side of a bridge just might. But it is very hard to plan and calls for an awful lot of subtlety and luck.

Notoriety can do the trick, but it’s tough to gauge what works. Convictions for coke snorting do not seem to have tainted Kate Moss’s tush too much: though she was dropped by Burberry she was quickly grabbed by Calvin Klein, a long-time believer that no publicity is bad publicity. However, another kind of word of mouth put the skids on Hugh Grant’s career, a dose of divine intervention that took him years of good behaviour to transcend.

The internet has changed everything. Now there’s ‘viral marketing’; neither a computer virus nor even a common cold, it acts in the same way as a virus by quickly replicating itself and spreading throughout the world’s bloodstream (the internet). Of course, it helps if you have a good product.

The most spectacular recent example was the spread of the search engine Google. A word in the ear from some friend or computer acquaintance told you, “Try Google and just see how fast it searches.” So you keyed-in www.google.com and, hey presto! Within seconds you had the answer to your question and several thousand alternatives to work through.

What made Google a roaring success was that it worked so fast and intuitively. After a couple of trials, you probably locked it into the favourites spot on your browser like countless millions of people around the world. It made this invention of a couple of Stanford University computer nerds such a massive success that they listed in 2004 at over $5 billion. Not bad for a quicker way to get the goss.

Look at the phenomenal success around the world of Big Brother, Big Sister, Big Cousin Twice Removed and all the other offshoots of the reality show phenomenon. What is Big Brother other than your nightly dose of gossip through the keyhole? I’m not a fan, but in my dutiful way I watched various episodes and was stunned by the utter banality of the conversations and the painful slowness and erraticness of the entertainment.

But many millions remained glued to the set for their nightly dose of Big Brotherly gossip: who’s putting on weight, who’s bedding whom, who is going to be frozen out by the rest of the crowd – the major discussions taking place would be as recognizable to a Neanderthal hunter as they are to our sophisticated modern viewers.

And boy how that gossip has worked for advertisers. Sponsors like Freedom Furniture and Pizza Hut, who jumped on the bandwagon early in the piece, have reaped enormous benefit from the reality phenomenon. What’s more it just doesn’t seem to die.

It all makes a movie like Jim Carrey’s The Truman Show seem so much less fantastical, even positively predictive. They’re probably working on the set right now.

Ray Beatty runs Marketing Solutions, a consultancy advising companies on how to turn around their unsuccessful advertising campaigns.