EXCERPT: 'Viral Loop'


Tupperware as a business grew in multiple ways. Both the pool of buyers and the number of parties increased exponentially, each forged via social networking, while the number of sellers also expanded virally. More parties not only begat more buyers; they begat more sellers, who begat more buyers, and so on. The more Tupperware sold, the more people would sell Tup-perware products. It was like having thousands of salespeople on commis-sion instead of a few dozen working the phones at corporate headquarters. "Three people must gain" at every party, Wise wrote: the dealer through sales of Tupperware "and the booking of future parties"; the hostess, who acts as a subdealer "and upon whose hospitality and initiative, the success of the party plan depends"; and the guests, who "enjoy a sociable get-together." This viral marketing plan made perfect use of a part-time labor force of able-bodied, sociable, stay-at-home women. The seller earned a commission, the hostess basked in her role as queen bee, and attendees played party games, received gift bags, gossiped about husbands, kids, and neighbors, and had a small stake in helping one of their own sustain a busi-ness. Meanwhile, partygoers brought home a product that, at the time, had cachet. It was a win-win-win for everybody.

The first home party in the United States can be traced to the 1920s and was introduced by WearEver Aluminum Cooking Products, which found it an efficient strategy for reaching women in sparsely populated rural areas where there were few stores. Cultural historian Alison J. Clarke, author of Tupperware: The Promise of Plastic in 1950s America, posits that direct-selling schemes blossomed during the Depression because mass unemploy-ment allowed a displaced workforce to pursue casual labor with "minimal capital outlay, formal skills or professional qualifications." A door-to-door salesman from Maine working for Stanley Home Products stumbled on the concept in the 1930s when he knocked on the door of a minister's wife while she entertained potential donors to the church. She told him to return another day, but before he left she proposed a deal: in exchange for a cut of sales that she would donate to the church, she would gather her group again and the salesman could demonstrate his wares. It acted as a powerful referral from a trusted source and solved his big-gest problem: access. The public held door-to-door salesmen in low esteem. Itinerant sellers were known to harass housewives, dump second-rate mer-chandise, and move on, and the sleazy traveling salesman became an arche-type. In Flannery O'Connor's short story "Good Country People," a peripa-tetic Bible salesman trolling the South seduces a woman and runs off with her artificial leg. The public outrage over pressurized sales tactics, with shifty men knocking on the doors of unsuspecting women, led local governments to pass so-called Green ordinances, named for Green River, Wyoming, the first city to enact it, which banned door-to-door solicitation. These salesmen were the equivalent of the spam that deluges email in-boxes today or the telemarketers who ring up at dinnertime to pitch a product, service, or cause over the phone. (They, too, invited regulation, namely the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 and the Federal Trade Commission's National Do Not Call Registry.)

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