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Research highlights X Factor's cruelty helps the show

Posted on 13/10/2011

The show's supremo Simon Cowell has faced criticisim for his cutting remarks

The X Factor benefits from the cruelty with which contestants are rejected, according to a new research study at Royal Holloway, University of London.

Researchers say the show makes a feature of the worst auditions, which are widely mocked and ridiculed. Even the more talented contestants seem broken by the trauma of being voted off, while some are also vilified in the media, like Katie Waissel last year and Kitty Brucknell in the current series. This has led to questions about the effect of rejection on younger contestants, such as the clearly distraught 16- year-old Amelia Oliver who was rejected from last week’s show.   

Chris Hackley who is Professor of Marketing at Royal Holloway, led the research, and says: “We were interested in how the X Factor has become one of the biggest media brands in the world. We found theories from anthropology that fitted the show’s storylines. The X Factor writers play up the contrast between success and failure in extreme and dramatic ways. The cruelty of rejection and the humble, unhappy or unsuccessful biographical details of the finalists are set against the bling and wealth of the judges’ cars and houses, the no-expense spared stage sets and the possibility of unlimited wealth and stardom for the winner. The contrasts of low to high, nobody to somebody, talent and not-talent give the show its emotional charge and tap into a human need for rituals of change and transformation.”

Co-author of the study Stephen Brown, Professor of Marketing Research at Ulster University added: “The authority of the judges is key to the effect. They make all the creative decisions for the finalists who are expected to accept their criticisms with humility and gratitude. Most important of all is the lead judge- in the current series, Gary Barlow, though the role is most closely associated with Simon Cowell. Traditional ritual rites of passage were led by a figure of mystical authority, a shaman or trickster character, and the role Cowell patented as the pantomime baddy of TV talent shows parallels the shaman role in traditional rituals.” 

Dr Rungpaka Amy Tiwsakal from Durham University, the third author of the study says the dramatic tension between rejection/failure and acceptance/success is what makes the format so compelling. She says the similarity with ritual rites of passage gives the X Factor brand its powerful appeal and generates a commitment from fans that few brands can match.


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