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

Chris Hackley, Stephen Brown, R. Tiwsakul

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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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)451-469
Number of pages18
JournalMarketing Theory
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2012

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