Does the word of mouth still have power?

“Word of mouth” is an amorphous term. It could mean a number of things, especially nowadays, when the “mouths” are on the internet and on TV shows.

It has or does not have substance; it is or is not able to be substantiated.

Once, though, when I first learned about it, it had a keener meaning and some verification as to its power.

In the early 1970’s, I worked at Paramount Pictures home office in New York. (I’ve mentioned this previously but am compelled to mention it again: our building on Columbus Circle is now the Trump International Hotel, for as long as the brass letters may last. Which I think will not be long.)

Paramount’s advertising and promotion department developed and commissioned trailers, print ads, promotional tours and – for our major movies – TV commercials, to get the public excited about going to the film. Of course.

Every day, we execs (I was junior but I did have my own office on the executive floor, 33) would get handed reports on the results of all that paid publicity – the specific grosses for each film we had in release, broken down (if I remember correctly) by theaters and their locations.

I was aware of how much money Paramount spent promoting each film. I thought money spent should have some sort of relationship to grosses but I wasn’t sure whether it did.

One day, I talked to my friend Warren Lieberfarb, the only person then at Paramount with an MBA. (He may have been the only executive then at any major film company with an MBA.)

Warren knew stuff I didn’t, understood numbers. I asked him about a half-assed theory I had developed that every dollar spent in publicizing a film brought in maybe a dollar in revenue. That is, beyond getting information out about a movie – where it was playing and its good reviews – I was questioning what good so much spending did.*

Warren gave me the formula. I think it was a dollar and maybe a few cents for every dollar spent in promotion.

“But you know what really works in getting people to see a movie?” he said. “Word of mouth. When your friend grabs you by the lapels and says, ‘You HAVE to see this movie! You HAVE TO!!!”

Word of mouth can get you to go to a movie, or watch a TV show. Or read a book, or a stunning newspaper or magazine article.

But how is it working today, when the mouths are not necessarily our friends who, when grabbing our lapels, are expressing their personal feelings? When friends deliver the Word, we don’t usually suspect the derivations of their thinking. Are they paid promoters? Conspiracy nutcases?

If they are, we know it. We know them, so we know what they’re saying to us is unadulterated opinion. It’s as trustworthy as their opinions have usually been. Which means we may see that movie and wind up loathing it, but we don’t question the purity of their excitement.

How effective is word of mouth today? Do we still trust our friends’ opinions?

I don’t know.

*Re-reading this, it just occurred to me that my old half-assed theory about promotional expenditures is my new half-assed theory about dark money spending: can a pounding of expensive political ads actually convince voters to support that candidate?

I still think not. I still believe it takes a good friend and his enthusiastic word of mouth.


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