Why do people, and things, become popular? | A YNaija Investigation

by Adedayo Ademuwagun


10 years ago, a young Nigerian based in London returned to Nigeria and did a song. The song became a hit instantly, and a few years later he became the biggest and most popular pop artiste on the whole continent. That young Nigerian was D’banj.

Social scientists and marketing experts have been studying this kind of phenomenon for decades.

We know that a popular thing is something that is liked, admired or supported by many people. But how do people, and things, become popular? Why do some people and things become so popular, and some don’t?

A straightforward answer to these questions would be that things grow popular because they are better than others. That is, a song or kind of phone is popular because it is better, more efficient or that sort of thing.

However, experts believe that people don’t often make choices objectively, and so popularity is not usually a result of some rational advantage.

Malcom Gladwell’s bestseller The Tipping Point is a book that seeks to explain why things grow popular. It is one of the most authoritative texts on this subject.

In the book, Gladwell says ‘social epidemics’ are propagated largely by people he classifies as connectors, mavens and salesman. His theory in a nutshell is that there are special people in the society who popularise things and determine what or who gets popular.

Associate professor of sociology Fatai Badru calls these people opinion moulders. He says, “The opinion moulders in a society are not exclusively the wealthy people or celebrities. Some may be regular people who simply use word of mouth to spread the word about something, but they have influence and command trust to a significant
extent in that society. This makes them able to popularise things to the extent of their influence.”

Pius Adejoh, a doctor of sociology gives another reason, “A person can also become popular in a society if they’re doing something uncommon in that society. This can be by showing uncommon skill, talent or character, or an affinity for a kind of value that is not common in a clime.

“For instance in our society where corruption is the norm, if a person displays uprightness even at personal detriment, it can be a springboard for popularity.”

Marketing professor Douglas Holt calls this concept ‘cultural innovation’ in his bestselling book How Brands Become Icons. In the book he suggests that people and organisations get popular when they express a particular ideology or quality that society demands at a particular period.

One example here is Fela Kuti. He was undoubtedly an impressive entertainer in his time, but what made him especially admired was the way he fearlessly spoke his mind about current political issues. This was a time when dictators were in charge of government and people cowered in fear. The society needed people who could speak up and defy the dictatorship, and Fela met that need.

Another example is the rise of pentecostal churches in Nigeria in the early 1990s, an era when the tyrant Sani Abacha ruled with two iron hands.

The economy was biting hard, and masses groaned under the suffering. It felt like they were near the breaking point.

It was in this period that millions of Nigerians turned to God in despair, and churches began to baloon and grow popular. The masses needed hope and relief, and the churches positioned themselves to fill that need.

Things also often become widely liked because of some really smart marketing and branding. People often make choices and develop a liking for something based emotionally on perception, so companies and celebrities spend a lot of money on managing their brand to try and sway people’s perception in their favour. Sometimes, this makes the difference between a famous product or celebrity and an obscure one.

Jonah Berger tells of a blender company in his book Contagious. They did a YouTube video to demonstrate how powerfully their blender works. In the video, they throw a phone into their blender and it grinds the phone into particles. The video went viral, and afterwards, the company’s blender sales increased by 700%.

In their book Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath also tell of a group that studied the effect of fundraising to support starving children in a certain part of the world. There were two different appeals. One appeal was based on facts and figures about the humanitarian situation. The second appeal focused on one single named child who was starving. The second one got more donations. This also demonstrates that sometimes the difference between a widely accepted personality, product or style and a relatively unknown one is basically a difference in the marketing.

But sometimes people and things really catch on not because they are so outstanding or because they meet a need, and not because of some real marketing. It is like some circumstances just coincide to thrust them in the spotlight.

For example, why is a 500-year old painting of a mysterious woman so renowned all over the world today?

In 1911, someone named Vincenzo Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre museum and walked out. The theft created a worldwide buzz, precipitated by the media.

Every major newspaper in the world covered the story, and the Mona Lisa fast became a household name. Soon people were queuing outside the Louvre just to catch a glimpse of the empty case where the Mona Lisa used to be. By the time the thief was tracked down and the painting was recovered two years later, the painting had become universally renowned.

Before the theft, the Mona Lisa was just another masterpiece in a museum. Yes, it was the work of Leonardo da Vinci, but he was not exactly the best artist of his time. There was Michangelo, for instance. Also, there were other masterpieces in that museum such as the Venus de Milo.

Therefore, many art historians believe that if Peruggia had stolen a different masterpiece, that one could have become world famous in the manner of the Mona Lisa, or at least the Mona Lisa wouldn’t be this popular. Today, the Mona Lisa is the best known painting ever.

One thing that is evident in the Mona Lisa story is the powerful role of the media.

“There are a lot of people who do noble, exceptional things that could make them popular if there was some media attention. But they hardly even get noticed. They remain unsung. But there are people who are not really exceptional, but because of the way they are being projected favourably in the media, they become popular,” says Dr Adejoh.

Another thing is the American influence on pop culture. For instance, if Mark Zuckerberg was a Nigerian student at the University of Ibadan when he created Facebook in 2004. Would it have grown so popular?

Apparently, America wields a lot of influence over pop culture on a global level. That is why most of the biggest stars and things are either American or received wider attention AFTER gaining popularity in the US. Think of Chimamanda Adichie, Harry Potter, Gangnam Style and so on.

Chimamanda Adichie is the best known Nigerian contemporary writer today, and she is evidently a gifted writer. However, while it is not disputed that she would have achieved her present level of critical and commercial acclaim outside the United States, being based there has clearly facilitated her renown.

Also, when the Korean rapper Psy put out the Gangnam Style video in 2012, it was really a captivating video. But not even HE anticipated the frenzy it generated — in the US.

The video went viral in America when a couple of American stars including Tpain tweeted it. From there it gained millions and millions of views, just from America. Even Koreans back home wondered why it grew so popular. MTV declared Psy the ‘most liked’ entertainer on the planet, and Gangnam Style is the most watched music video in the world (online).

Psychologist Dr Esther Akinsola, says, “Connection is the requisite of popularity. For a thing or personality to become popular anywhere, it has to connect well with the people. The more people can connect strongly with a person, idea or any other thing, the more acclaimed it will become.”

So then, has Harry Potter series sold over 400 million copies worldwide because it connected well with readers? Is Don Jazzy one of the most admired and influential Nigerians alive because of some uncommon skill, talent or character?

Is Yousfzai Malala the most famous teen activist — who could have won a Nobel Prize last year — because circumstances coincided to make it happen? Did African Queen become the number one African love song because of some superior marketing? Why do people, and things, become popular?



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