University Take That Simon Cowell

Secret of X Factor's success: the cruelty of Caligula Cowell


By Noel Young, Correspondent

October 14, 2011 | 4 min read

Ever wondered about what makes the X Factor such a stunning success, in the UK and now in the US ? Well now we know. It's a throwback to the time when our ancestors used to go through "vicious rites of passage" says a UK group of marketing academics - and we still need that!

Simon Cowell: Just call him Caligula

Simon Cowell (now replaced in the UK) is the key figure, "like the emperor Caligula giving the thumbs up or down to signal life or death in ancient Rome". AdAge magazine in the US calls him a "witch doctor figure" .

The three-strong team of academics concluded after a two-year study that the show's success had its roots in our primitive culture.

The televised rituals "satisfy a basic human need to witness the kind of gladiatorial scenes that are no longer part of our culture," says

Chris Hackley, professor of marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London, the report's lead author.

"The possibility of a transformation of identity is an important part of the show, and cruelty and humiliation are also crucial in the process.

"When boys became men in ancient societies, they were often given tests and trials, while the low in status had a licence to mock the high in status. This resonates and taps into a deep need."

The pattern partly explains why "X Factor" has continued to be the most popular show in the U.K., even without Cowell.

"Gary Barlow from Take That has stepped neatly into the villain's role, relishing the opportunity to dish out humiliation and harsh criticism ," said Hackley.

"Simon Cowell didn't invent the role, but saw its potential and has exploited it for all it's worth. His cult trickster figure still hangs over the U.K. show and has made it the most successful media brand in the country."

He said the show's success had in a sense revived the advertising market. It was "a resonant platform for advertisers". Yeo Valley, the organic dairy brand had a hit with rapping farmers during last year's "X Factor" live finals. This year, a tongue-in-cheek ad based around a boy band called The Churned, made up of sexy young farmers, was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter worldwide when it launched during last Saturday's show.

The song from the spot, created by Bartle Bogle Hegarty, London, was number 31 in the iTunes chart only two hours after the show finished, and has been viewed more than 250,000 times on YouTube.

The researchers say the show makes a feature of the worst auditions, which are widely mocked and ridiculed. But 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, is a cause for concern.

The X Factor writers playing up the contrast between success and failure in extreme and dramatic ways.

Co-author of the study Professor Stephen Brown, of Ulster University added: “The authority of the judges is key to the effect. Most important is the lead judge- in the current UK 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 and acceptance is what makes the format so compelling. She says the similarity with ritual rites of passage gives the X Factor its powerful appeal.

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