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The X Factor enigma : Simon Cowell and the marketization of existential liminality.

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  • Anthropology
  • Communication
  • Literature
  • Logic


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, epitomize 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 for the contestants the possibility of transformed identity. 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 of the media role Cowell personifies and we critique and 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.

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