The Tipping Point: A Commentary

JaymElaine's picture

When I was a little girl, about twelve years ago, a brand new sneaker had just hit the market; they were the brand new patent-leather, high-top Reebok classics with a ridged sole. Those shoes were truly amazing, and I remember I just had to have them. My best friend, Heather, had them first and about two weeks later, about half of my neighborhood had those same exact shoes. Of course, with my mother’s salary and my mother’s distaste for the trends of young America, I was one of the last to actually receive these shoes, but when I did get them it was surely a joyful day. What was more amazing to me, besides the fact that my mother finally bended a little and bought me the eighty-dollar pair of shoes, was how fast the trend had gotten around my neighborhood. It went from only one person owning the shoes, to literally hundreds of kids wearing them in a matter of weeks. I would walk down the halls of my elementary school, down the corridors at my brothers’ high school, down the aisles of the grocery stores, and everywhere I turned I saw those same white, shiny patent-leather shoes. Boy, was that fast!

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point helps to explain how such a phenomenon happens in our everyday societies. Gladwell’s book exquisitely demonstrates the many ways in which a trend becomes a trend and how an idea can be a household name/product in no time at all. He refers to such phenomena as social epidemics and gives three factors for how epidemics spread in society; they are "The Law of the Few", "The Stickiness Factor", and "The Power of Context".

"The Law of the Few" explains the social circles necessary in order for trends to spark into true epidemics; three types of people are significant for successfully fulfilling the word-of-mouth that is partly responsible for spreading these epidemics. Connectors are people who not only know lots of people, they know lots of different kinds of people; "they are people whom all of us can reach in only a few steps because, for one reason or another, they manage to occupy many different worlds and subcultures and niches." (Gladwell, 48) Knowing a connector puts you in touch with so many more people, for telling a connector something means telling him and all five hundred of his friends and associates. This truly makes word-of-mouth advertising worth the while. Mavens are those people who not only know people, they know things; they are extremely knowledgeable and are good for deal-making. Mavens are the "people we rely upon to connect us with new information...there are information specialists." (Gladwell, 59) These types of people not only know this week’s sales at the grocery store, they know how much a particular good should cost according to our economy’s market values, and because these people know such handy information, they will save you a lot of money. Thirdly, the salesmen are the innovators and the trend-setters. They put the product out on the market for all to see and copy. This means more revenue coming in, like Reebok for example. " critical factor in epidemics is the nature of the messenger." (Gladwell, 91) A social circle with these three types of people will create the "perfect messenger".

"The Stickiness Factor", in brief, explains how some things "stick" and others do not. " order to be capable of sparking epidemics, ideas have to be memorable and move us to action." (Gladwell, 139) This is true, for example, with respect to sneaker advertisements, what is the one slogan we know? "Just do it!" has been the sneaker slogan amongst the youth for at least fifteen years now, and it is all thanks to the Nike footwear company and its effective advertising strategies for making such a slogan "stick" all these years. To this day, I do not know Reebok’s slogan, or even Addidas’s slogan, or any other slogan for any shoe company for that matter. No wonder why Nike sells more shoes!

The third and final law for successful epidemic expansion is "The Power of Context" which states that popular trends can sprout as a result of its surroundings and environment. "Epidemics are sensitive to the conditions and circumstances of the times and places in which they occur. In Baltimore, syphilis spreads far more in the summer than in the winter." (Gladwell, 139) Just like syphilis has a growth pattern, so does other products like Italian Ice (water ice) or ice cream in the summer time. Ice cream and water ice sales decrease when it is cold outside. Also, it is much easier to appeal to kids of an inner city when advertising a particular sneaker than it is to advertise in a community for the elderly. Environment and surroundings means a great deal and make or break a trend if introduced at the wrong time.

The Tipping Point goes on to discuss many case studies in which Gladwell applies the three laws for epidemics; he talks about syphilis outbreaks in Baltimore, New York City crime rates, suicide, and cigarette smoking. Reading these case studies were very interesting and only further proved his theories and why things happen in massive quantities.

I found this book to be quite interesting; it was truly a good read. It was apparent that Gladwell did his research and came prepared to author a well-written, thorough book , and he did a great job. I did question some of his thoughts at times, however. For example, when talking about the second law, "The Law of Stickiness", Gladwell suggests why and how some things "stick" more than others, but he fails to mention what causes some things to "stick". I would have liked to read his take on that. Also, I was interested in reading why connectors are more prone to friend-collecting versus other people. What is it about connectors that make them who they are? Character, style of dress, their environment, their upbringing? He touched briefly on this, but I wanted a full take on this as well. I did appreciate Gladwell’s thoughts though. They allowed me to see a lot things in a different light.

Overall, I loved the book, and I think you will too!


Gladwell, Malcolm. The Tipping Point. Hachette Book Group USA, New York, NY. Copyright 2000, 2002


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