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How do you get people to believe your ideas? Well, there’s something we can learn from really sleazy ideas that catch on. For years, Snapple struggled to fight rumors that it supported the KKK. The idea was completely absurd—as one of the founders of Snapple said, “How could 3 Jewish boys from Brooklyn support the KKK?”

But the rumor kept spreading because it had some “evidence” on its side. People would say, “Look at the label—there’s an old wooden slave ship on the front. And on the back there’s a weird K with a circle around it—that’s the sign of the Klan.” And sure enough, if you looked, you’d see a ship and a circled K, and maybe you’d start to wonder. But the reality is less scary: The old wooden ship was a depiction of the Boston Tea Party—get it, Snapple Tea, Boston Tea Party? And what about the K with a circle around it? Well, it doesn’t mean “Klan.” It means “Kosher.” Whoops.

This crazy rumor challenged people to “see for themselves.” See, look, there’s a K on it. Its credibility derived from something that people could test for themselves. My brother and I call this a “testable credential.” Notice what’s going on here conceptually—when we think about making ideas credible, we usually think about the source. The Surgeon General says something, and we believe it, because he’s a credible authority. But when you use a testable credential, you’re basically outsourcing the credibility of your idea to the audience. It’s like a “try before you buy” concept for ideas.

I worked with a senior exec at a major department store chain who thought that the company’s store managers were doing way too much audit paperwork. He had a chance to present the idea to his colleagues – how could he convince them that he was right? Well, he brought in a big unruly stack of paperwork—519 pages in all—and said, this is the amount of paperwork our managers have to fill out. Every month. And his audience could see for themselves that it was absurd. That’s a testable credential. And using testable credentials is an effective way to convince your audience to believe your ideas.

To learn more about testable credentials—including one used by a Nobel-Prize winner—check out the resources below. 

Chip and I love, the urban-legend clearinghouse. See its write-up of the false Snapple/KKK legend. In Made to Stick, we have a long section about testable credentials in the Credible chapter of the book. (Here's an excerpt from that chapter that tells the story of a scientist who had to put his own health at risk to convince people that his theory about ulcers was right. He eventually won the Nobel Prize for his insight.) Another testable credential is Wendy's classic "Where's the Beef?" campaign. (If you've never seen these ads, put life on pause and take a look.) The message is, basically, "See for yourself--our beef patties are way bigger than the other guys'."