Hit Makers | Derek Thompson

Summary of: Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction
By: Derek Thompson


In the age of overflowing content and distractions, the secret to success is understanding the science and art of popularity. In ‘Hit Makers: How to Succeed in an Age of Distraction’, Derek Thompson unravels the code behind what makes a hit across various facets, including art, music, movies, design, and more. Thompson highlights that exposure to an audience is a fundamental ingredient in popularity, but there’s more to it. Delve into the stories of successful artists and the sensibility to strike balance between familiarity and innovation, and learn how popularity isn’t necessarily as meritocratic as we believe it is.

The Power of Exposure in the Art World

The popularity of an artist is not always determined by actual quality, but by exposure to the audience. The article compares the works of Claude Monet and Gustave Caillebotte, showcasing how Monet’s fame was largely due to his exposure to the public. While Caillebotte’s work was just as incredible, he remains relatively unknown because none of his pieces were displayed in the first large exhibit of impressionist work at the Musée du Luxembourg. This highlights the importance of being in the right place at the right time and the power of exposure in the art world.

Raymond Loewy’s MAYA Principle

Raymond Loewy, a French orphan with a talent for drawing, single-handedly brought modern design to the United States. Producing sleek and aerodynamic plans for trains and cars and classic objects like the Lucky Strike cigarette package and Coca-Cola soda fountains, Loewy developed the first theory of what people like, and therefore, what becomes fashionable. His principle, called MAYA (most advanced yet acceptable), suggests that successful designs strike a balance between familiarity and novelty. People are drawn to things that are typically recognizable, but they also grow weary of overly familiar things. Subsequent studies confirm Loewy’s findings and show that people prefer objects that encompass both typical and novel elements. For example, Loewy’s train designs were recognizable as trains, but their bullet shape set them apart.

The Science behind Repetitive Pop Music

Why do people love listening to repetitive music, especially pop songs? The answer lies in the way the human brain is wired, where slight variations can break the monotony, grab attention, and make people feel good. Like mice, human beings are attracted to repetitive sounds with a slight twist or variation. Successful pop songs follow a formulaic pattern of verse-verse, chorus, verse-chorus, bridge, and contain some familiar tunes that make people predict the music. This pattern is uncannily similar to
BBBBC-BBC-BC-D, the most effective pattern experimented on rodents to keep their attention. Thus, humans are drawn to familiar and repetitive sounds with a slight twist, which keeps them listening to the music they love.

Challenging Sexism in Popular Culture

Geena Davis exposes gender inequality in movies and TV shows through the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. Over 120 popular films were studied between 2010 and 2013, revealing that less than one-third had female protagonists and only 23% had female lead actors. The representation of women in powerful roles, such as business, science, and government, was shockingly low, reflecting the current gender ratio of CEOs in the United States. Additionally, women were often depicted in sexualized clothing and received more comments on their appearance than male counterparts. Structural factors, such as male dominance in the entertainment industry, partially explain these trends, but audiences’ preference for traditional gender roles plays a crucial role in reinforcing bias. The Geena Davis Institute aims to raise awareness of gender representation in media and promote more diverse and equitable portrayals.

The Paradox of Popularity

The effects of popularity on consumers and the limits of marketing are explored in this book excerpt. While authoritative figures and manipulated social media can influence popularity, ultimately, consumers have some autonomy in their purchasing decisions. However, popularity can also have negative consequences and lead to backlash. The paradoxical nature of popularity is demonstrated through studies on award-winning books and Lady Gaga’s album Artpop. The excerpt suggests that popularity may not always be desirable and is ultimately fleeting.

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