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'Shaman' Cowell's X Factor appeals to our need for rituals which subvert the social order

Posted on 08/12/2010

Researchers have looked into why the X Factor show is so successful

Academics from Royal Holloway, University of London, the University of Ulster and the University of Surrey researching the success of Simon Cowell’s X Factor may have found an answer in the myth and magic of anthropological theories of ritual.

The research, led by Professor Chris Hackley, a marketing expert at Royal Holloway, suggests that the unique appeal of Cowell’s TV show format taps into a deep need for rituals that challenge the prevailing social order.

Drawing on the work of anthropologist Victor Turner, X Factor can be understood as a ritual journey of transformation for the contestants. The show holds out the promise that unknown failures can achieve untold glory and riches under the direction of Cowell’s Svengali-like TV persona. Cowell’s role is a composite of the mythical, anthropological and literary figures of the alien enchanter, the jester, the witchdoctor, and the shaman.

Professor Chris Hackley explains: “We came at this from the perspective of marketing academics trying to understand how Cowell had turned the tired old TV talent show format into a multi-media marketing phenomenon. His business empire sets new standards in digital, social and entertainment marketing, but we found one possible explanation for its underlying appeal not in marketing theories but in Turner’s theory of existential liminality. Through the key role of Cowell’s darkly powerful TV persona, we felt that the show appeals not merely to a need for social rituals of reassurance and order but to a deeper need to subvert formal social structures in order to open up the possibility of new identities in a transformed social structure”. 

The research found echoes of Cowell’s appeal not only in anthropology but also in literature, as co-researcher Professor Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster explains: “Simon Cowell’s X Factor has interesting parallels with the huge popular success of George Du Maurier’s 1894 novel Trilby, in which the magical enchanter Svengali turns nonentity Trilby O’Farrell into an internationally successful opera singer. The central character, the mysterious Svengali, became synonymous with entertainment impresarios like P.T. Barnum and ‘Colonel’ Tom Parker. The difference with Cowell is that, unlike the original Svengali, he is at centre stage of the ritual performance”.

Dr Rungpaka Amy Tiwsakul of the University of Surrey added: “Scholars have suggested that while some media rituals promote social solidarity and support the prevailing power structure, such as a royal wedding or funeral, others subvert the social structure. X Factor takes full advantage of the convergence of TV, internet and print media to bridge the physical distance between viewers and the ‘sacred centre’ of the ritual allowing viewers to feel part of the process”. 


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