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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2015

Malcolm Gladwell was a journalist for The Washington Post and later became a staff writer for The New Yorker. In December of 1996 he published an article on the idea of a “tipping point,” the moment when a social trend crosses a threshold and starts to spread like wildfire. The original article was expanded into this book, with many additional examples.

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How does a style of clothing become trendy? What causes a sudden drop in the crime rate of a major city? Under what circumstances can a political cause explode into a revolutionary mass movement? Why do some advertisements stick in people’s minds while others are ignored? How does a book become a best-seller? These are the kind of questions for which Gladwell tries to find a common denominator. Just as a single match can start a large wildfire under the right conditions, or one sick individual in a crowd can bring about a flu epidemic, Gladwell argues that little things can make a big difference in social dynamics. He selects examples from a wide variety of social situations to illustrate how an idea or trend can become contagious, spreading quickly from a small beginning to a mass audience.

For example, Hush Puppy shoes, with lightweight crepe soles and suede uppers, were a popular brand in the 1970’s, but by the early 1990’s sales had dropped to about 30,000 pairs per year and executives at the Wolverine Shoe Company were thinking about phasing them out. In 1995, however, Hush Puppies became a local fad among a group of young people in Manhattan. Subsequently, several nationally known fashion designers decided to incorporate the shoes in their fall showings. By the end of the year, over 400,000 pairs were sold. In 1996, sales increased to more than one million pairs, and the next year to almost two million. All this happened basically by word of mouth, without an advertising campaign by the manufacturer.

In a very different type of case, the New York City crime rate from 1975 to 1992 was very high, totaling over 600,000 felonies per year, including about 2,000 murders. In 1993, a tipping point was reached and the crime rate decreased dramatically. Within five years, serious crimes dropped to one-half and murders to one-third. What caused this huge decline? Some long-term trends such as less drug use, aging of the population, and improvement in the economy might explain a gradual decrease, but not the sudden drop that actually occurred.

Gladwell argues that the sudden decrease in crime can be attributed to two other factors. One of these was cleaning up graffiti in the subway system. Instead of assigning police resources to stop violent crimes, funds were allocated to remove graffiti by repainting. If a car was vandalized, it was repainted the next day. It took almost five years to clean up thousands of cars. Subway director David Gunn justified the subway cleanup project as follows: “The graffiti was symbolic of the collapse of the system. When you looked at the process of rebuilding the organization and morale, you had to win the battle against graffiti. Without winning that battle, all the management reforms and physical changes just weren’t going to happen.” The project put into practice the so-called Broken Windows theory of criminal behavior, developed by criminologists George Kelling and James Q. Wilson.

If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and no one is in charge. Soon, more windows will be broken, and the sense of anarchy will spread from the building to the street on which it faces, sending a signal that anything goes. In a city, relatively minor problems like graffiti, public disorder, and aggressive panhandling, they write, are all the equivalent of broken windows, invitations to more serious crimes.

In trying to restore orderliness for the subway system, another seemingly minor offense had to be addressed. People had gotten into the habit of climbing over or around the turnstiles to avoid paying their fare. The problem became so widespread that as many as 170,000 people per day rode the subways without paying. The loss of revenue was not as important as the loss of respect for law and order. Transit police in plain clothes were assigned to arrest fare-beaters. They were handcuffed and left standing on the platform for a while as a public signal that such behavior was no longer tolerated. The remarkable result of this new policy was not only that people paid their fares but also that serious crimes such as robbery, rape, and murder dropped more than 50 percent. Taking a firm stand on minor offenses brought the major felonies down as well, so that New York became one of the safest large cities in the world.

In the realm of revolution, the famous midnight ride of Paul Revere is cited by Gladwell as the most dramatic historical example of a word-of-mouth epidemic. It mobilized local militias to confront British troops in open rebellion for the first time. The Battle of Lexington, on April 19, 1775, was the tipping point that marked the start of the American Revolution.

For some time, New England town meetings had been the forum for anti-British speeches objecting to excessive taxation in the colonies. The Boston Tea Party in 1773 was a public act of defiance, but at that time the situation was not yet ripe for a military confrontation. Paul Revere’s ride was the trigger that focused anti-British sentiment, assembling a large force of militia at Lexington and at Concord that, although poorly armed, nevertheless won a significant victory over the redcoats, forcing them to retreat to Boston in disarray.

Why was Paul Revere’s ride so effective in generating widespread participation? As in his other tipping point examples, Gladwell tries to analyze why a little thing, in this case a solo horseman, can make such a big difference, generating the opening salvo of the War of Independence. He emphasizes the important role of Revere as an initiator, a sociable man with a large network of acquaintances in the countryside around Boston. From past contacts, he already knew the men who were community leaders and on whom he could depend to transmit the message that “The British are coming!”

On the same night as Revere’s ride, another horseman named William Dawes carried the same message from Boston to Lexington by a different route. Dawes was not a “connector” of people like Revere, so his message did not spread beyond the few individuals whom he personally warned. From the towns where he had gone, no militia groups came to join the patriots at Lexington and Concord. To stimulate a word-of-mouth epidemic, not only must the timing and the circumstances be right but also the initiator must be a person who knows and is known by a large number of people.

In the world of advertising and marketing, the goal is to generate a message or slogan that will stick in people’s minds and, it is hoped, sell their product. Many people still remember the slogan “Winston tastes good like a cigarette should” or Wendy’s famous line “Where’s the beef?” These advertisements had a unique “stickiness,” providing name recognition for the manufacturers.

Gladwell describes a highly successful advertising campaign for Columbia Records in the 1970’s. Television viewers were told to hunt for a picture of a gold box in their TV Guide or Parademagazine. If they found one, they could send it in to obtain a free record of their choice. Searching for the gold box “made the reader/viewer part of an interactive advertising system. Viewers were not just an audience but had become participants.” Audience participation was an effective method to increase the “stickiness” of the advertisement. Since people are exposed to an increasing number of commercials in the media, a special gimmick helped to make the message stand out from among the general clutter.

In 1996, a book was published entitled Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, written by Rebecca Wells. It had modest sales of fifteen thousand copies during the first year. Two years later, a phenomenal surge in popularity occurred. It went through forty-eight printings and sold over two million copies.

In order to understand this epidemic, Gladwell points out that the book first became popular among women’s reading groups. The story deals with mother-daughter relationships, providing an opening for women to share personal experiences with other members of their group. Reading the book and then discussing it afterward made it into a meaningful social experience for the participants. The tipping point for book sales came when women went to their bookstores to buy extra copies for friends or family members. The enthusiasm spread from one reading group to another. Gladwell explains, “Women began forming Ya-Ya Sisterhood groups of their own, in imitation of the group described in the book.” The lesson of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood is that “small, close-knit groups have the power to magnify the epidemic potential of a message or idea.”

A variety of other examples are cited by Gladwell to illustrate the concept of a tipping point in social epidemics. One is the story of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who had remarkable success during the 1780’s by forming his converts into religious societies. Another tells about the first episodes of the television program Sesame Street, which attracted a large audience of children and their parents. A sociological study of the adoption of hybrid seed corn among initially reluctant Iowa farmers in the 1930’s provides another interesting example.

In the last part of his book, Gladwell applies his tipping point analysis to the epidemic of cigarette smoking among high school and college students. While smoking by adults continues to decline, the number of adolescents who smoke increased by more than 30 percent in the 1990’s. It is apparent that health warnings, higher prices for cigarettes, and advertising restrictions are not making an impact on this age group. The effect of role models who set teenage fashions and behavior is much stronger than adult warnings about long-term health hazards.

Gladwell is pessimistic about being able to influence the dominant personalities in the youth culture in order to reverse the smoking epidemic. Instead he proposes two alternative strategies. He cites a theory by addiction experts Neal Benowitz and Jack Henningfield that a dose of less than five milligrams of nicotine per day is probably below the threshold to produce addiction. Five milligrams may be the tipping point for making an occasional smoker into an addict. If tobacco companies were required to reduce the total nicotine content in a pack of cigarettes below this threshold, they suggest, it would “prevent or limit the development of addiction in most young people.”

Gladwell’s second proposal to tip the teenage smoking epidemic downward is based on studies that have shown a strong correlation between smoking and depression. For some people, genetic factors may cause an imbalance in certain chemicals produced by the brain which are important to regulate a person’s moods. If smoking is caused by feeling depressed and if depression is due to a chemical imbalance, then drugs that are useful to treat depression may be a good antidote against dependence on nicotine.

In his writing, Gladwell has assembled examples from a great variety of situations which all demonstrate a tipping point. What caused the tipping effect is quite variable, however. There is no single mechanism that works in all situations. For the Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, small discussion groups were the key factor. For Columbia Records, audience participation tipped the balance. For Paul Revere’s ride, his role as a recognized community leader was essential. In the New York subway system, fixing “broken windows” tipped the crime rate downward. If one deliberately tries to create a tipping point in order to produce a socially desirable outcome, the challenge remains to discover what mechanism would be effective in a particular situation.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (February 15, 2000): 1059.

Library Journal 125 (March 1, 2000): 112.

The New York Review of Books 47 (June 15, 2000): 41.

The New York Times Book Review 105 (March 5, 2000): 8.

Publishers Weekly 247 (February 14, 2000): 187.

Time 155 (February 28, 2000): 90.

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