'Svengali Simon Cowell Is PT Barnum Reborn'

Academic likens media mogul to 19th century showman who coined the phrase 'There's a sucker born every minute'

There is no such thing as a new idea in show business, according to University of Ulster (UU) marketing expert Professor Stephen Brown, who has been researching the unique appeal and phenomenal success of Simon Cowell’s X Factor.

Almost 20 million viewers tuned to this year's X Factor final to watch Matt Cardle win the coveted 2010 title and a six figure record deal, but Brown argues that Cowell’s brand is retro through and through - old format, old songs, old publicity stunts, all given a 21st century twist.

'The X factor reflects modern society and uses contemporary technology to draw in the audience and make them feel part of the process,' comments Brown. 'It is like a ritual journey of transformation for the contestants. The show holds out the ancient rags-to-riches promise that talented nobodies can become celebrity somebodies under the direction of ‘Shaman’ Cowell’s Svengali-like persona.'

Brown, who is Professor of Marketing Research at the UU and Dr Rungpaka Amy Tiwsakul of the University of Surrey are part of a collaborative research team led by Professor Chris Hackley of Royal Holloway, University of London. Their findings suggest that the X Factor’s successful format taps into a deep need for rituals in a secular society where celebrities are sanctified.

'As marketing academics we were interested to understand how Cowell had turned the tired old TV talent show format into a multi-media marketing phenomenon,' adds Brown, 'setting new standards in digital, social and entertainment marketing.'

Brown and his colleagues concluded that a possible explanation for the show’s underlying appeal lay not in marketing theories but in the myth and magic of anthropological theories of ritual.

Brown elaborates: 'Simon Cowell and the X Factor have many 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 malevolent Svengali, became synonymous with entertainment impresarios like PT Barnum and Colonel Tom Parker. However, unlike the original Svengali who operated behind the scenes, Cowell is very much at centre stage of the ritual performance that is the X Factor.'

Brown points out the many similarities between Cowell and other successful businesspeople like Madonna and Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary, who court controversy and work on the premise that there is no such thing as bad publicity. Every condemnation increases the brand’s allure, the more hyperbolic the better. The devil might have all the best tunes, Brown argues, but in the end Cowell collects the royalties.

'Simon Cowell’s role is a composite of mythical figures like the enchanter, the jester, the witchdoctor, and the shaman, all of which add to the intrigue and interest in the show and its high audience ratings. The X Factor is today’s equivalent of Barnum’s circus in the 19th century, with last year’s contestants Jedward a contemporary equivalent of Chang and Eng, the ‘original’ Siamese twins who were the stars of Barnum’s Greatest Show on Earth. Simon Cowell is PT Barnum reborn.'

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