Fox Plays Up ‘Idol’ Emotion

Nov 30, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Fox is thinking small in its efforts to promote the biggest show on television.
It’s not that the network is scaling back the breadth of its campaign for “American Idol,” the beyond-adjectives reality juggernaut that has kept it No. 1 in key ratings for the past four seasons. From relentless on-air spots to shopping mall takeovers, Fox is readying a marketing push the size of Simon Cowell’s ego to make sure viewers know “Idol” will return on Jan. 13.
The network even recruited reigning “Idol” champ David Cook to headline an on-air promo, marking the first time a past contestant has been used to market a new season of the show.
But after playing up the notion of “Idol” contestants as outsized personalities in last year’s pre-launch promotional campaign, Fox marketing chief Joe Earley has decided to scale things back for season eight.
The changes to the marketing, which come in the wake of a 9% decline in “Idol’s” ratings in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic last season, are in part a reflection of some of the expected tweaks to “Idol” next season, Mr. Earley explained.
“The show is more real, it’s back to its roots,” he said. “It doesn’t have a veneer.”
Mike Darnell, Fox’s president of alternative programming, said it’s too soon to offer specifics about the changes in the works. He did say, however, that “Idol” would be “more intimate” and “more raw” than last year.
“It’s going back to letting the kids be more emotional and seeing more of their reality,” he said. “We’re going to allow the public to see a little more of their emotional state.”
Overall, he said there “are subtle changes and there are bigger-than-subtle changes. But I wouldn’t call anything ‘radical.’”
Two significant shifts already announced include the addition of fourth judge Kara DioGuardi and the departure of longtime showrunner Nigel Lythgoe.
Mr. Darnell said that on a scale of one to 10, his excitement level regarding the tweaks to the show ranks at an 8.
“And I’m a 9 when it comes to the talent,” he added. “We just got done with Hollywood Week, and the talent and the characters we have are the best since season five.”
To fit with the more intimate feel of “Idol,” the marketing for the 2009 model of the show will be more down-to-earth, although Mr. Earley said the network will be spending a little bit more than it did last year.
“Last year, we had contestants reaching a level of perceived stardom much earlier, both in the show and in our marketing campaign,” Mr. Earley said. “We made them look great; the concept was that they had arrived. But looking back, we think that maybe it was too soon to have them arrive. This year, we wanted to make sure we started out with real people.”
Gone, then, are the images of Godzilla-sized generic “Idol” contestants Fox used last year to push the idea that the show created overnight celebrities. Instead, look for print ads that speak to the notion that the next “American Idol” could be anyone—a waitress, a cowboy, a single mom.
“We’re putting our models (in the print campaign) in the real world,” Mr. Earley said. “The hope is to convey that within all these everyday people there is an ‘Idol.’ It takes it to a more relatable place.”
Last year’s ads were accompanied by the tagline “Dream Big,” a phrase that played off the outsized show. The motto for “Idol” this season is the more grassroots-themed “Share Your Voice.”
Mr. Earley said Fox is hoping that slogan—and the marketing that surrounds it—will match the post-election zeitgeist in the country.
“It would be reaching to say we’re trying to tie into the election itself,” he cautioned. “But what we are tapping into is what we’ve just been through and the mood of the culture and the state of our economy. We’ve been through a lot of divisiveness lately, and our message is, ‘It’s time to stop arguing and fighting, to all pull together.’ And the most important message in the on-air campaign is that ‘American Idol’ is an event that brings us all together.”
Mr. Earley said Fox’s on-air spots will “show the range of emotions” that contestants go through during the “Idol” audition process.
“There’s pure celebratory joy … but the heartache is there, too, the anger of the people who don’t move forward,” he said. “When I watch these spots, even though I’m a cynical television executive who has seen more of the ‘Idol’ process than viewers, I get chills. I’m not exaggerating. You get excited that this journey is back again.”
As for the spot featuring Mr. Cook, Mr. Earley said the ad begins with the singer about to go on-stage to perform his new single, “Light on.” He begins recalling how his “Idol” voyage began, with viewers seeing clips from Mr. Cook’s appearances on the show. “He then steps on-stage, and when he starts singing, you get that rush,” Mr. Earley said.
Mr. Cook spent a whole day shooting the spots for Fox, which began running the promotions over the Thanksgiving weekend. The benefit for Mr. Cook, of course, is promotion for his new album, which was released Nov. 18.
“We’re looking at doing some spots with some other past ‘Idol’ contestants,” Mr. Earley said.
Building Up
Fox’s promotional push for “Idol” will continue to build throughout the holidays. In addition to plenty of on-air, look for the network to aggressively go after the “Idol” audience where they’ll be spending a lot of time during the next month: shopping malls.
The network will dominate kiosk advertising in a number of big-city shopping centers. In addition, several malls will feature an interactive advertisement that will allow shoppers to take a picture of themselves as an “Idol” contestant.
“I love that anyone who’s in the mall can put themselves in one of our ads,” Mr. Earley said.
Also, Fox is teaming with its stations in major markets on a promotion designed to reinforce the feel-good nature of the show.
“Because a lot of the media buys are in malls, we’re doing promotions where ‘American Idol’ and the stations will be giving people gift cards for the holidays,” Mr. Earley revealed. He also said the network would once again “do a ton of radio” advertising, and that AmericanIdol.com—which is not owned by Fox—would also play a key part in touting the show’s relaunch.
Between weekly Paula Abdul crises and endless debate about the quality of each year’s contestants, “American Idol” would seem to be the show that promotes itself, making Mr. Earley’s job relatively easy. But whatever built-in advantages the network has when it comes to hyping the series are more than balanced by the pressure of keeping the show a dominant force in the ratings—and the pop culture.
“It’s imperative that we continue to have the biggest show on television,” Mr. Earley said, fully aware that it’s “Idol’s” supersized ratings performance that has propelled Fox to first place in the Nielsens for the past four years. “We have never taken it for granted.”
Mr. Earley closely coordinates the marketing and publicity efforts for “Idol,” ensuring that both are in sync as Jan. 13 approaches. The spot featuring Mr. Cook, for example, was scheduled to premiere on an entertainment newsmagazine before it popped up on TVWeek.com and then began airing on the network.
And while there will be no shortage of free media reminding audiences of “Idol’s” return, Mr. Earley makes sure not to overlook the smallest details. He insists that every spot include the date and time “Idol” premieres. For the mall ads, “It’s important that from far away, you can see that the ad is for ‘American Idol’ and that the show is back.
“We’re conscientious about every detail,” he said. “When you’re in season eight of a show, you don’t take anything for granted. We need to make sure people know that, OK, we’ve been away—but now it’s ‘Idol’ time.”


  1. The ad campaign is less important than the talent. If they are building on the emotion, they are probably taking a cue from David Cook, season 7’s winner, who became really human to the viewers by his tears when his brother battling brain cancer was able to attend, his honest and emotional reaction to judges comments whether high praise (I feel like I am looking at the next American Idol) or snarky (Your problem is you don’t have charisma), his hearty laugh and easy smile. But, underneath it all was an amazing talent that developed and grew stronger across the weeks right before our eyes. After season five and six’s lack luster years, I had decided not to watch American Idol season 7 until I got completely hooked on David Cook and am still so invested in his career that I have gifted his CD to everyone in my family for the holidays this winter. Regardless of their promotion of the show, viewers have to make that personal commitment to a performer that millions made to both Davids this past season. That will bring viewers back week after week. It is the talent that brings us in, the behind the scenes interviews and video clips that make us feel we know the contestant personally, and their very honest human emotions that keep us hooked.

  2. I agree with Shari above. It’s the talent and whether a contestant can connect emotionally with the TV viewing audience that will keep viewers tuned in. David Cook’s win (with the highest number of finale votes in the history of the show) should show Fox and 19 Entertainment that America is tired of the cookie-cutter assembly line that pop music (and 19 Entertainment) keeps churning out. David Cook represented the hope that real rock music could be represented once again in a musical mainstream where assembly line pop rules. This is why Cook’s talent and persona resonated so well with the viewing audiences. He was real.
    The judges on American Idol keep telling contestants they need to be original, and then when the show is over (except in the case of David Cook, who needed no such advice) the powers that be try to market contestants to fit in with the current pop climate. David Archuleta’s talent deserves something better than the attempt to market him as a teen idol for the preteens to have a crush on, as the songs on his new CD continually display. Every song on the CD sounds like one long continuation of “Crush”. He’s as good as Josh Groban and even though he’s very young, he should be marketed more like Josh Groban, because he’s not going to be a teenager forever and his voice is more mature than say, anyone in the Jonas Brothers. Hopefully Archie won’t get pushed aside in another couple of years because of such poor marketing. It’s clear that the music industry treats artists as easily disposable today, wishing only to make quick money and then discard them.
    What the show really needs to do is to stop trying to make people fit in with what’s happening today, and let people be original, because what’s happening today in music, by and large, is nothing to get excited about. Record sales are poor because the songs generally don’t come from real emotions felt by real people.
    People want their musical heroes to be real, not manufactured. David Cook is off to a great start, as he is the first winner of Idol to have much creative control.

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