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American Idol: its lessons for advertisers and marketers

May 19, 2009

Simon Cowel is an icon of people we love to hate. It is a great ploy to turn American Idol into one of the hottest shows on television. He also happens to be a brand within the larger brand known as “American Idol’. Today’s media is fragmented and it takes a bigger bang to get attention.simon cowel

Even Viacom’s CEO Sumner Redstone would be forgiving of Simon Cowel’s publicity antics if his network owned the show. By comparison Tom Cruise would be a centered monk next to Simon. He may be the most famous critic everyone loves to hate. We just cannot seem to get enough American Idol, it is an undisputed run away success phenomena.

Its viewers are estimated to be a staggering 30 million week to week. By comparison, the major networks are fighting fiercely to grab a finite number of Americans who still tune in to watch the evening news.

The market is so competitive that with a mere difference of less than 3 million viewers the former bright eyed and bushy tailed Katie Couric could lose her multimillion dollar job.

Americans now have a multitude of choices to tune into. This sure beats the big three networks of the bygone era. In the golden days of baby boomers, Americans tuned in to view The Cosby Show. It was also a paradoxical success.

Its success may have been due to, in part, to the fact that there were only two other choices. Cable has become the leveler of the playing field. With hundreds of channels, what can a network do to keep the competitive edge? Even worse, American consumers are now choosier than ever. These days it takes creativity, imagination, and more than a little luck to make a hit show.

Simon Cowel will forever be associated with Amercian Idol. So why do we tune in to this buzz machine? This became a focus of attention for me when a colleague in a board meeting requested that we get down to business because her show was waiting.

What do you do when your agenda (program) has to compete with the thrill of Simon’s harsh brand of criticism that decimates the would be singers? Enter time magazine to the rescue. In the issue of April 16 the writer James Poniewozik saved me days of research to distill the reasons we love American Idol.

It became apparent that the advertising industry could learn something from this article. It could be the salvation of many a lack luster results of marketing campaigns. Here is the down and dirty or “Readers Digest” version, As my Mami was so fond of saying:

Americans like hearing a story.

American Idol is not about signing. It’s a melodrama ruled over by the three judges. Simon reigns supreme. It’s much like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland, “Off with their heads!” Viewers seem to be addicted like crack junkies to the drama of the stars and the contestants.

Singing just happens to be one of the vehicles used to tell the story. So if you are a mom and pop operation, what compelling story could you tell to intrigue the apathetic faceless demographic?

Americans like to route for the under dog.

We like the good guys to win, up to a point. Our childhood belief is nice guys finish first. The reality of life, however, taught me a different story. Mr. Poniewozik says, “ We reward the best and cut the laggards, however kind or hard working they are.

Idol voting tugs at your deepest secret emotions and it levels the playing field, somewhat, for the not so fantabulous.” There is a lesson here for the small advertiser. You do not have to be a bemoth brand to have your share of the market. The consumer will choose you and even pay a little more if you are perceived supporting the community or the like. This is the strategy small town retail shops use to fight against Wal-Mart.

Americans like to be surprised by what we alreadyknow.

Critics can see a broad range of genres that are remakes of the classics. American Idol “celebrates interpretation not creation.” Multimillion dollar campaigns go down in flames much to the dismay of their creators. They were so original that they failed to factor the connection to the past associations of the psyche of the consumer.

Our vibrant and dynamic economy was built on the backs of the past. Coke learned this costly lesson also when it scraped its formula for a totally new recipe. It created such hysteria that I was told by one former Coke employee that people were stock piling cases of coke in their garage fearing the end of their thrist quencher. So if you have some unique product or service tell them how this is just like the old but new and improved.

Americans do not need sex to be entertained!

Well…not at least as far as American Idol is concerned. Imagine a TV show that parents can sit down to watch with the whole family. No one has to turn shades of red over sexuality oozing out of the tube. The producers are mirroring back to women what they want to watch since two thirds of the voters are ……..(drum roll )…… WOMEN.

Maybe marketers could learn that to engage a broader audience femininity in good taste still trumps progesterone oozing off the pages of print ads or invoking bedroom images from radio or TV advertising.

Americans like to be pandered to.

According to Herman Hermit, and Peter, two recent guests on American Idol, “It’s a voting competition rather than a singing competition.” If you expect to advance, you better study films of past great politicians. It’s a campaign, rather than a competition.

You need grace, candor, and warm fuzzies coming out of your vocal cords to resonate with the masses. Just like politics you can win an election but not be able to govern. If you expect to sell records you must have reserves of stage charisma that can be recorded. This was the hard lesson Taylor Hicks learned when his recent released album had disappointing sales.

Other casualties of Idol have developed a cult following that has bought millions of their records. Politicking is such a science that you must be assertive but gracious mixed with charm. If you are a small business owner and depend on mixers to network, it’s critical that you learn the art of politics to politic your way to their mind and pocketbook. This is public relations 101 at its best.

Soooooooooooo, the question becomes “How can I captivate a market place that tunes out the majority of advertising it is bombarded with?” If one discovers the secret formula, rest assured that marketers will beat a path to his or her door.

Then they will be summarily displaced when something bigger and brighter captures the attention of the American public. Such is the world of marketing. One author who I met recently is one of the thousands of marketers in search of the Holy Grail.

In his book, Are You Waiting For Your Cat To Bark, he points to how we need to get a reality check. The game of advertising and marketing has changed. This caused me to do a double take and think “Hey wait a minute! What if I was to become the Hispanic Simon Cowel who puts on a competition for would be marketers?” Anyway, what do you do to get your message out to the masses with media fragmented into literally thousands of options?

Do you pay or reward people to listen to your commercial as one of the latest ploys of a marketer that will give you a soda pop out of a dispensing machine after you watch a commercial? Let me ponder this question and I’ll get back to you. In the mean time happy viewing and hasta la pasta mis amigos.

~Victor

ps. I wrote this post in the summer of 2007 so some facts may be dated

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