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The X Factor as a ritual of change and transformation

Posted on 26/10/2011
Simon Cowell

The authority of judges such as Simon Cowell is key to the effect

The X Factor's similarities with ritual rites of passage help to explain its popular appeal according to a new study.

Professor Chris Hackley, who led the research, says: “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: “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.


The X Factor Enigma: Simon Cowell and the Marketization of Existential Liminality (Hackley, C., Brown, S., and Tiwsakul, R.)

X Factor uses "cruelty of rejection" to appeal to audiences, academics claim (Daily Mirror)


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