The X factor Enigma: Simon Cowell and the Marketization of Existential Liminality


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The X Factor Enigma:

Simon Cowell and the Marketization of Existential Liminality

Chris Hackley, Royal Holloway University of London

Stephen Brown, University of Ulster

Rungpaka Amy Tiwsakul, University of Durham

Pre-print draft of paper accepted for forthcoming publication in Marketing Theory (2012) - please do not cite without permission

Keywords: X-Factor; Simon Cowell; liminal ritual; anthropology; media convergence; digital marketing

Contact details for corresponding author:

Chris Hackley,

The X Factor Enigma:

Simon Cowell and the Marketization of Existential Liminality


In this paper we take a cultural perspective to understand the success of Simon Cowell’s X Factor TV talent show and its various brand extensions which, we suggest, epitomise the new marketing priorities of the media convergence era. We seek insights not from formal theories of marketing management but in the myth and magic of Cowell’s enchanted TV presence as the mystical authority, the trickster figure, conducting a mass-mediated experience of Turner’s (1969) ‘existential liminality’. Detached from formal rites of passage, this simulation of liminal ritual temporarily, and symbolically, subverts formal social barriers and opens up the possibility of transformed identity for the contestants. We suggest that X Factor viewers partake both vicariously and actually in this marketized experience of existential liminality. We review literary as well as anthropological antecedents to the media role Cowell personifies and we critique and we extend previous applications of Turner’s work in marketing and consumption to suggest a wider resonance beyond the exemplar of X Factor in a range of ordinary, as well as extraordinary, consumption phenomena.


Mr Simon Cowell is arguably the quintessential experiential marketer in the Western world with his stable of numerous TV formats and million-selling artists. His UK TV talent show, and now international franchise, X Factor, is not only remarkable for the seamless way it leverages its brand and integrates revenue-generating touchpoints across media platforms, but also for the attention it receives as a cultural phenomenon. Academics have commented on the way it satisfies a human need for community and for sensational entertainments, and stimulates the desire to engage with universal narratives of human experience (Day, 2010). X Factor also displays elements of Bakhtin’s (1965) theory of carnival with its irreverence and mockery of pretension, its bold populism and its juxtaposition of the ‘high’ of being a star and being ‘somebody’, and the low of being a rejected ‘nobody’. We suggest, however, that while the cultural perspective in general offers more penetrating insights into the appeal of the X Factor brand than any conventional management theory, anthropologist Victor Turner’s (1965) notion of existential liminality may offer the richest analytical scheme, given the analogies between the show and with ritual rites of passage. These include, among other things, the imposition of strict rules and procedures marking the contestants’ progress; the absolute authority of the judges, and the delegated authority of the audience; the ways in which the story arcs of the show juxtapose reversals of fortune, from anonymity and adversity to TV stardom; the humility with which the contestants are expected to endure the judges’ public criticism: and, most notably, the presence of Cowell’s trickster figure orchestrating the entire effect (notwithstanding Gary Barlow’s ability to act up in the part in the 2011 series). X Factor appears to be premised on a need not only for the kind of social connection seen in other media rituals such as royal weddings and funerals, but also for a deeper engagement with a sense of the possibility of transformation. Turner’s ideas have been applied in consumer research to generate insights into the appeal of ‘extraordinary’ consumption phenomena such as white water rafting and extreme mountaineering (Tumbat and Belk, 2011). We suggest that they also have a wider resonance in the marketing of ‘ordinary’ and mass mediated consumer experiences.

We will begin by outlining the X Factor TV show format before reprising Turner’s theories of liminal ritual in order to clearly ground our subsequent analysis. We then offer a discussion of previous research into marketing success, followed by an account of the complex marketing effort underpinning the game-changing scale of Cowell’s triumph with his X Factor franchise. Finally, we analyse X Factor as an example of the marketization of existential liminality, taking in the crucial role Cowell hit upon as a composite of the mythical trickster/shaman figure in literature and anthropology. Our aim, overall, is to offer an explanation of X Factor’s huge appeal from cultural anthropology, and in so doing to hint at analogous processes underlying other brand marketing and consumption phenomena.

The X Factor process

By way of a brief introduction to this (now worldwide) entertainment phenomenon, X Factor is not just a TV singing talent show but a new paradigm in TV talent shows. British TV has a long tradition of popular Saturday night talent shows, notably Opportunity Knocks in the 1970s and New Faces a decade later. Both shook a tub of saccharine over the traditional British pub ‘open mic’ format where anyone can get up and sing, and took it to mass TV audiences. What Cowell has done is to put dramatic light and shade, story arcs galore, and massive production budgets into this cheesy old genre. X Factor is, by some distance, the biggest show on UK television in terms of viewing figures, advertising revenue and the media coverage. Simon Cowell owns the format and the X Factor brand and his company has a major share in the production of the show and its many spin-off activities, from TV shows about the show (‘Xtra Factor’), to the X Factor magazine, live performances in major venues, and internet downloads of the artists’ best songs. Cowell acts as agent to the winning singers, and he also takes on some losing finalists especially chosen for their commercial potential. He has been the lead judge, featuring prominently on every live TV show in each UK series up to 2011 when pop star Gary Barlow took over the role in the UK shows to allow Cowell to focus on the newly launched American franchise.

In the first stage, nationwide auditions are held for up to 200,000 hopefuls. Selected auditions appear on the early televised shows. It is a feature of X Factor that it was the first TV talent show to use the very worst auditions as entertainment material, with added edge brought by Cowell’s (and latterly, Barlow’s) frank, some would say cruel public announcements on the auditionees’ lamentable lack of talent, personality, charm, or all three. This freak show element attracts criticism for presenting the caterwauling performances of the deeply deluded as comic entertainment. Yet the car crash auditions also serve a dramatic purpose, since they offer a stark contrast which accentuates the talent which improbably emerges from this primeval sludge of solipsistic ego and tone-deaf ambition. Performances which are no better than competent appear by contradistinction to be shining beacons of showbusiness talent worthy of a standing ovation from the studio audience, that is, until they are exposed for their mediocrity in subsequent trials as the drama oscillates around the continually shifting constructs of talent/somebody and not-talent/nobody. After several rounds of auditions, accompanied by fevered media coverage of the contestants’ life journey from defeat, dysfunction or despair to the threshold of triumph and personal transformation, a large minority are elected to go to boot camp, a residential talent-churning event from which a smaller set of semi finalists are chosen. The discarded losers, distraught and perplexed but with a story to tell of their close encounter with fame, slope back to their back story, the media attention a mere memory.

The surviving neophytes are allocated to one of four categories: over 25s, girls, boys and groups, and each gets a judge as dedicated mentor. They are then flown to Miami, Los Angeles, or other destinations far from their usual horizon to be temporarily ensconced in the kinds of spectacular homes top stars might occupy, to rehearse intensively under the close scrutiny of their mentor. The juxtaposition of the trappings of extraordinary wealth with the economically humble backgrounds of most of the contestants is deliberate. The contrast between grim reality and bling-tastic possibility is played up for all its worth and the contestants are duly wrung for tears to camera as they speak, in quivering close-up, of the transformation that winning would mean for their lives. Emotional dramas ensue until 12 finalists are chosen to compete in the live TV shows, amidst much media controversy about the judges’ decisions. Back in the UK, this elite group of liminars are taken from their homes and families and installed together in a luxury house under tight security in order to rehearse every day for the live show competitions. They have been separated from their previous lives for short periods since boot camp, but this time their separation is prolonged and continuous, lasting until they are voted off the show, or until they win it. Their daily dramas and family and personal problems are filmed and retold in Britain’s celebrity, showbusiness and, often, news media too, as the aspirants occupy a marginal state on the threshold of stardom, yet also, still, deeply ordinary tryers. They are besieged by press and fans in their self-contained compound for the duration of their time on the show, and trips out into ‘real’ life, even to meet with family members, are closely controlled, choreographed and exhibited as vignettes in the TV shows, always with the journey from low to high (or at least, to not-quite-so-low) as the key narrative.

At this stage, the viewing public, previously represented by the baying Coliseum crowd in the apparently huge TV studio arena, are transformed into quasi-judges through the telephone voting system. Each finalist’s nobody-to-somebody story arc is elaborated as the PR is hyped up to saturate the media. Each successive show requires the acts to perform on live, peak-time TV. The judges make all creative decisions on the performances, and the TV audience phones in to vote (at a price) to keep their favourite artist in the show. The artist with the least votes each week leaves, and the ultimate winner earns a recording contract, and a shot at superstardom. The finalists are in competition with each other, yet a policy is strictly enforced under which only public statements of mutual appreciation and camaraderie are permitted. Some private disagreements, or romances, do tend to leak to the press, just to fan the flames of popular interest. Stories of the judges’ rivalry and supposedly bitter arguments also find their way into the media as each judge hopes ‘their’ act will win. The contestants meet the public denigration of their weaker performances with ritual humility, thanking the judges for their sometimes coruscating and personal criticisms. The live shows are spectacular affairs, bringing production values never before seen on TV talent shows and the (usually mediocre) talents receive the very best of professional voice and dance coaching, musical backing, elaborate stage sets, expert PR guidance and, for a lucky few, commercial contracts and management.

Having outlined the X Factor process we will now introduce Turner’s (1969) notion of liminality. Turner’s concepts of liminality and communitas have become part of a taken-for-granted vocabulary of interpretive social science which often fails to ground these terms in his original conceptual scheme. It is therefore important to reiterate some foundational issues in order to clearly identify the points of resonance with X Factor.

Victor Turner and liminal ritual

The liminal zone was a phenomenon anthropologist Victor Turner (1969: see also 1967; 1974) had observed in ritual process, building on the work of Van Gennep, (1961). Turner’s (1967) initial ideas were grounded in his ethnographic observations of the ritual rites of passage of the Ndembu tribe. Rites of passage are rituals noted in all societies to mark transitional phases of life such as birth, death, marriage, puberty and so forth. Turner conceived of liminality as a realm rich in the possibility of infinite change and renewal, of individuals, ideas and relations. Turner (1969) had commented in his later work that, in economically advanced societies, a phenomenon he termed existential liminality had emerged wherein elements of liminal ritual were present in a form detached from traditional rites of passage.

Previously, van Gennep (1961) had noted that the ritual process consisted of three stages:

1. Separation

2. Liminal period

3. Reassimilation

This categorisation was also referred to by Turner (1969) as preliminal, liminal and postliminal. The key element is the possibility of a transformation into a new status in a revised social structure. Firstly, there is a separation in which the subject (also known as the liminar, or the passenger) is divested of their usual social context and its symbolic accoutrements. This can be seen as a symbolic death. But the subject is neither quite dead to their old life, nor quite alive in their new life. In Turner’s (1969) phrase, they are ‘betwixt and between’, just as the X Factor finalists are neither stars, nor anonymous bar or shop workers. This occurs in a realm Turner called ‘anti-structure’, in that the imprint of social structure is momentarily erased from the social interaction of this group of liminars. There then follows the liminal phase of trial, test and potential transformation. The liminal process is characterised by a number of features, including the observance of a strict procedure enforced by a figure of mystical authority: a sense of the infinite possibility of change: playful and irreverent reversal and subversion of normal social structural roles: marginalisation in that the subjects are simultaneously members of two or more social groups, their previous one, which they have not yet formally left, and their new one: and what Turner (1969) called ‘communitas’.

Communitas refers to the momentary experience of mutual emotional connection which can occur in the absence of social structure. The meaning of this term has arguably become diluted since it became popular in social science. Turner (1969) was very clear that communitas is not the same as solidarity or community: it cannot persist over time and occurs in momentary experiences ‘in the interstices of social structure’ (p.153). One example might be the connection felt by a group of friends the summer holiday after finishing high school, before they move on to their new lives and that connection is lost. The liminal phase is often orchestrated by a trickster or shaman figure who lies outside social structure, yet holds mystical power over its domain. The trickster’s authority is absolute within the liminal process. Finally, in the re-assimilation stage, the initiates who have been judged successful in their progress through the liminal passage are received back into social structure, with due fanfare and ceremony, in a new and elevated position.

Turner (1969) felt that the cultural resonance of liminality was by no means limited to traditional rites of passage marking life crises, transitional or calendrical events in pre-or indeed post-industrial societies. He referred to aspects of liminality evident in sub-cultural movements such as religious pilgrimages, cults and the hippie movement, and as a concept helping to illuminate structural and psychological experiences of change in much wider cultural arenas of politics, religion and revolution. He also allowed that communitas can occur in the absence of a liminal process (p.109), but most of his examples also exhibit aspects of liminal ritual. Importantly, communitas is not just a blanket term for one thing. Turner (1969) referred to three kinds of communitas that can arise from different forms of liminal process. These are:

  1. Existential communitas

  2. Normative communitas

  3. Ideological communitas

Existential communitas is spontaneous and fleeting, what might have been described in the 1960’s hippie movement as a ‘happening’ (1969: p.132). Turner (1969) also used the term liminoid experiences to refer to existential communitas. We suggest that it is this form of communitas which most aptly fits marketing and consumption phenomena. The most obvious analogies in contemporary marking might be flash mob events or adventure holidays, but we suggest that there is no reason not to apply it to mediated experiences as well. Normative communitas occurs where there is a shared goal which demands organization and resources, as in, say, a sports team or a group of soldiers. Ideological communitas refers to utopian social movements. In all three, communitas appears to be a subjective affective state experienced as something spontaneous and momentary, and in its latter two forms the ‘seeds of structural segmentation and hierarchy’ are already sewn (p. 136).

Turner also allowed for ‘pathological communitas’ (p.129). The Manson ‘family’ or criminal gangs might be examples of this. It is not entirely clear whether Turner intended communitas to be conceived as a collective emotion, or as a system of relationships and practices. It seems clear that the latter may arise from the former, and communitas may generate communitarian ideals. However, when this happens, social structure has re-asserted itself and the moment of communitas has passed. Turner (1969) stated that if individuals act ‘in terms of the rights conferred by the incumbency of office in the social structure’ or, if they follow their ‘psychobiological urges at the expense of one’s fellows’ (p.105) then communitas is violated. In other words, whenever individuals assert their individuality, that is, they revert to the status-seeking behaviour of social structure, communitas is no longer present. This is an important distinction since it reasserts the difference between communitas as an emotional bond which is sufficient in and of itself, and community (or solidarity) as a bond which is structured by mutual obligations and practices. Sub-cultural groups oriented around consumption (for example extreme mountaineering, biker groups, or style sub cultures like Japanese ‘cos players’) might be seen as examples of the creation of anti-structural spaces, yet the experience of communitas need not necessarily be implicated in them.

Existential liminality

In this paper we focus on existential liminality, which Turner (1969) also referred to as liminoid experience. The characteristics of this are 1. Participation is voluntary (as opposed to being a compulsory consequence of marriage, death, birth etc) and 2. resolution, i.e. re-assimilation into a revised social structure with a new identity, is not necessary to the experience of transformation. Turner (1969) gave the example of citizens living under a semi-permanent state of political chaos and/or warfare. In such circumstances, the experience is liminoid in the sense that the experience of being in a state of transformation may not be resolved during a lifecourse. Another example Turner gave was in the Judeao/Islamic/Christian traditions where life on earth is a liminal experience with the desired resolution occurring only after death (and indeed the same may be said of Buddhism and Hinduism, with a different eschatology).

Turner (1969), then, extended Van Gennep’s (1961) ideas well beyond traditions of ritual in pre-industrial societies. As he put it, ‘The very flexibility and mobility of social relations in modern industrial societies...may provide better conditions for the emergence of existential communitas, even if only in countless and transient encounters, than any previous forms of social order. Perhaps this is what Walt Whitman meant when he wrote ‘One’s-self I sing, a simple separate person, Yet utter the word Democratic, the word En-Masse’ (p.203).

Whitman’s phrase has a more than superficial similarity to the X Factor format of singing for popular acclaim. Turner’s work gave the notion of liminality far wider currency beyond anthropology and into sociology, political, anthropological and cultural studies (e.g. Szakolczai, 2000: Horvath et al, 2009; Haywood and Hobbs, 2007). Liminality has been applied to small groups, sub-cultures, historical epochs, entire nations or to individuals: psychoanalysis, for example, can be understood as a liminal process. Turner (1969) suggested that liminality is a time and/or place in which normal social structures and action can be reversed and subverted. It acts not only as a playful counterpoint to everyday norms but also as a site at which the values and practices of the surrounding social structure can be brought into relief. This has helped extend the concept to political anthropology and to the examination of cultural and sub-cultural phenomena. It is in this spirit of political and cultural anthropology that we turn Turner’s (1969) ideas to an examination of a hugely popular TV show.

Before embarking on our analysis, it must be admitted that Turner’s ideas may have been over-extended, and some commentators feel that they lose some more of their explanatory power the further away they are applied from traditional sacred rites of passage. There is a danger that the idea has become too abstract and, therefore, is too easily applied in new contexts. What is more, phenomena such as X Factor are open to analysis by other conceptual frames. As we note above, the show could resonate to some degree with Bakhtin’s (1965) literary theories of the carnival in its playful and chaotic subversion of social hierarchies. However, the carnivalesque may represent manifestations of anti-structure, but it displays few of the other characteristics of liminal processes such as strict procedure, the authority of the trickster/shaman, or the ritual reassimilation of the passenger into social structure. In the management literature, the X Factor might be seen as an example of ‘karaoke capitalism’ (Ridderstråle and Nordström, 2004) in that it makes a virtue of the copy. Then again, X Factor is deeply original in its unoriginality.

While acknowledging that Turner’s ideas are open to interpretation, and also that X Factor can be analysed in other ways, we argue that Cowell’s activities have, unwittingly, marketized existential liminality, adding a deep cultural resonance to a profoundly prosaic entertainment. As Turner (1969) explained: ‘Society seems to be a process rather than a thing- a dialectical process with successive phases of structure and communitas. There would seem to be- if one can use such a controversial term- a human “need” to participate in both modalities. Persons starved of one in their functional day-to-day activities seek it in ritual liminality.’(p.203). Here, Turner (1969) clearly identifies communitas as a consequence of liminal ritual, and we conceive of the consumer experience of X Factor not only in terms of a need for anti-structure (which can, after all, be served in other forms of group human interaction) but as an experience (as viewer or as contestant) which is given a powerful resonance by its analogy with liminal ritual processes. Now, before embarking on our analysis, we look at previous literature which analyses the management techniques or the consumer motivations underlying marketing success, before offering a more detailed account of Cowell’s role in the ubiquitous marketing entity that is X Factor.

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