Six Ways American Idol Ushered in Modern Marketing

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Last week American Idol had its 15th Season champion crowned on its final episode. It was an amazing run that started in 2002. Perhaps it tapped into a national feeling of togetherness shared at the time, but it also built a following that in many ways paved the way for social media and the way we market ideas and products in this hyper-connected world. Idol was a game changer in many ways, but these may be the six most important that we have seen amplified today.



Audience Engagement: American Idol was magical in finding a formula that gave the viewer a “Who Shot JR” interest every week. No longer were they a passive audience, they had a horse in the race that needed their phone calls and texts to keep them on the stage. This connection with contestants was aided by the powerful back stories and behind the scenes footage produced each week. AI primed America’s eagerness to connect with these new celebrities that were not much different from them, with the exception of some killer pipes.

SMS Marketing: I am convinced that American Idol was largely responsible for the growth of text usage. It made many figure out how to use their phone for something other than a voice call and likely helped AT&T sell more unlimited plans. Today it is ubiquitous, but I believe still often an underutilized component of many marketing strategies. As a shift to mobile messaging apps occurs, brands are already finding ways to infiltrate the space.

Native Advertising: From the giant red cups of Coca Cola in front of all the judges to the Ford music videos, American Idol took product placement to another level. It was woven into every element of the show, even the voting. They didn’t invent product placement, but as advertisers struggled with the expansion of DVRs and an On Demand society, Idol was again ahead of the curve.


Personal Brand Appeal: Success was predicated on getting viewers to pick up the phone and vote for you. Personality and appeal were at times seemingly more important than the voice. How else do you explain Taylor Hicks and the “Soul Patrol” winning out over Chris Daughtry and Katharine McPhee? Idol like everyone was trying to figure out how to evolve into Social Media and this element became sticky. It wasn’t until season 9 that the show began allowing contestants to manage their own social accounts, but that was quickly shut down when it became clear one singer had a built-in fan base that threatened the formula that built the show. By the following season they realized participation in social media required a relinquishing of control and added voting via Facebook. While there was a correlation between social following and success avoiding elimination, it was not absolute.


Trolling: From hashtag hijacks to online activism, you must be prepared for criticism and negativity. Howard Stern led one of the greatest collective trolling campaigns when America voted Sanjaya to return to Simon’s stage week after week. Haters gonna hate.


Viral Meme: From “Pants on the Ground” to “She Bangs” the auditions were a show unto themselves and you didn’t even need to get picked for the show to go viral. You can’t artificially create these moments, but you can create the environment for the unexpected to happen. Did Piano Cat ever land a Christmas album?

When you look back at the past 15 years, a lot has changed. American Idol was not only boosted by those changes, but also helped to spur them. Its impact is easily seen in prime time with the slew of imitators and followers, but it was also the right idea at the right time to prepare us to awaken to this new connected world and the way we market products and view celebrity.

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