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How do you unstick Paris Hilton?

Believe it or not, this was a question posed to Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.

This week we are discussing the final section of Made to Stick: Sticky Advice. This portion of the book discusses some specific applications of their six characteristics of sticky messages. They discuss the importance of a business strategy that drives behavior, how to avoid inert strategies, how to teach in a way that sticks, and unsticking an idea.

It was this last that stuck with me. Just how do you unstick a bad sticky idea?


The Heath brothers were almost stumped by the question of unsticking.

There’s no Goo Gone for ideas, they said.

Just wait it out, they said. The memories will fade.

But we know the Heath brothers better than that, don’t we? They started snooping. The best answer they found took them back about sixty-five years.

During World War II, social scientist had a keen patriotic interest in rumor control. About two-thirds of the rumors during were “wedge-drivers,” accusations that provoked anger at various social groups (blacks, Jews, the Brits). These rumors were false and socially destructive, so the government wanted to fight back aggressively. One tactic that seemed to work against wedge-drivers was to redirect the anger and make people mad at the rumormongers. For instance, the rumor-control people would put up posters of Nazi spies spreading rumors to gullible dupes. This primed listeners to react angrily when someone spread a rumor: You’re undermining the American war effort by spreading Nazi untruths!

Upon discovering this little piece of history, the Heath brothers realized that trying to unstuck an idea is a bad tactic. The government was effective in this instance because they posed a competing, stickier idea: The Nazis are trying to trick you. Are you going to fall for that?

WormBurgers and Sitting on Explosions

As an illustration of fighting a sticky ideas with a stickier one the Heath brothers point to how McDonald’s fought rumors that it used earthworms as filler for burgers. The corporation publicly denounced the rumor for years but it wasn’t until 1992 that some success was achieved in the debunking. Ray Kroc, McDonald’s CEO at the time, pointed out that night crawlers were more expensive per half pound than hamburger.

We couldn’t afford to grind worms into meat, he said.

The public believed him because the elements of credibility (dollars per pound) and unexpectedness (We can’t afford to serve you earthworms).

Another example the Heath brothers cite is the difficulty the automobile industry had in overcoming skepticism and fear.

…People called it a “devilish contraption”…The Farmer’s Anti-Automobile Society of Pennsylvania, for example, demanded that cars traveling at night on country roads “must send up a rocket every mile, then wait ten minutes for the road to clear. If a driver sees a team of horses, he is to pull to one side of the road and cover his machine with a blanket or dust cover that has been painted to blend into the scenery.” One technologist of the time scoffed at the idea that gasoline engines would ever be widely adopted: “You can’t get people to sit on an explosion.”

Auto enthusiasts responded by creating reliability contests in which inventors would show off their autos capabilities. Competitions showcased endurance, fuel economy, and hill-climbing ability. The contests had festival-like atmospheres.

The first reliability contest was in 1895. By 1912 they had disappeared due to the wide acceptance of the automobile.

Fight an unwanted sticky idea with a stickier one.


I’ve learned a lot from the brothers Heath these past weeks, and I hope you have too. Don’t forget our acronym for the six characteristics of a sticky idea:







If we can remember these six characteristics when we craft our message, we’re well on our way to sticking around.

Thanks for hanging out with me and the Heath brothers these past six weeks. The new book club will start in January of 2011. Look for the book announcement in November. Next month, I’ll be giving you some good book ideas for that holiday shopping list.

See you on the page!

Related Posts:

What Sticks

Stories: They Take You There



Concrete: You Can Walk Around On It

Unexpected Journey


Photo by mymiyel, used with permission. Post by Laura Boggess.