Sofabet commenter Chatterbox5200 drops us a line with an amusing screengrab from one of those TalkTalk adverts on Saturday’s show. The girl on the left is wearing a t-shirt that says “RELAY”, but the R and Y are hidden, so it spells out ELA. The girl on the right is in a shirt that says “WINNER”.
ELA! WINNER! An amusing coincidence or a subliminal message? As Chatterbox says, “I’m sure I’ve been watching too much Derren Brown”. Ah, but we think it’s great fun to take a Derren Brown perspective on the X Factor.
Some background first. As regular readers will know, at Sofabet our approach to Cowell shows is two-part – figure out what producers want, then ask how likely the voting public are to oblige. On that first part of the equation, we analyse such things as how acts are presented in their pre-performance VTs, how they are styled and presented on stage, and what the judges say.
Some tactics seem obvious in their intended effect, such as when a judge says something like “you’ll definitely be here next week”, which we take to mean “viewer, are you about to reach for the phone to vote? Don’t bother, it’s not necessary”. (New readers might enjoy our articles on the 28 ways Wagner was assassinated in 2010 and our Top Ten Manipulative Moments of 2011.)
But there are also many less obvious things we notice, where we find it harder to be as confident if they’re intentional attempts to plant subliminal messages or just innocent coincidences. We tend to mention these only speculatively in passing, or not mention them at all. In this post, we’ll confront a few of them head-on, donning our tinfoil hats and venturing boldly into Derren Brown territory.
We’ll start with the classic example. Our friend Richard at the brilliant betsfactor.com last year developed a theory that red and black lighting may sometimes have a vote-dampening effect. We’re aware that many commenters on Sofabet don’t buy this idea. We sometimes mention red-and-black in passing in our posts, but we haven’t yet directly discussed what we think of it. So let’s do so now.
Daniel and I wouldn’t go to the wall for the red-and-black theory, but we are intrigued by it, as it does make some sort of sense to us. What does red-and-black suggest on a subliminal level? Ant and Dec? Roulette? The pits of hell? Sophie Habibis, in the week she was eliminated, appears to be singing in Dante’s Inferno, where she is in danger of being trapped in a web spun by a giant spider:
Contrast, say, a colour combination of blue-and-yellow, which puts one in mind of a lovely summer’s day.
Is it conceivable that viewers who are subliminally feeling like they’ve been transported to hell are less likely to pick up the phones? Put it this way: if we were in charge of the show, then this is exactly the sort of thing we’d be interested in having a bit of fun experimenting with to find out.
Red-and-black sceptics point to counter-examples such as Little Mix being red-and-blacked during the Sunday final show, and apparently favoured acts James and Union J both getting red-and-blacked last weekend. The counterargument is that if there is anything in this, you wouldn’t want to make it too obvious – you’d throw in a red(-and-black) herring or two. Little Mix would have been uncatchable by then, and James and Union J may be doing well enough in the vote for it not to matter.
There is also the possibility that red-and-black presses different subliminal buttons depending on context. Let’s escape from Sophie Habibis’s arachnid hellscape and take a look at James Arthur getting red-and-blacked last Saturday:
This isn’t hell, is it? It’s a seedy, sexy nightclub. It’s red-light district red, not Satanic red. It seems quite plausible to us that the Habibis example might have a vote-dampening effect, and the James Arthur example might not. Again, we wouldn’t go to the wall for this theory, but it’s definitely the kind of thing we’d be interested in playing around with if we were in charge of the show.
Continuing the hell theme, fire seems to be often associated with attempts to depress an act’s vote. Here’s a much-discussed example from last year, in the week when Janet Devlin’s death of a thousand cuts was finally completed – the show repeatedly put Janet’s face in giant frames, then made it go up in smoke:
The week before, when ditching Craig Colton, they’d made him sing ‘License To Kill’ in front of scenes that appear to have been culled from a Valor gas fire:
Last night Richard designated it Kye Fawkes Night on Betsfactor.com to focus on how fire has been used two weeks in a row now with Kye “32 flat notes” Sones, something we also noted in our immediate reviews of the week 2 and week 3 shows.
When they surrounded Kye with flames in week 2, we initially wondered if it might have been a pun on his backstory as a chimney sweep:
Then last Saturday, they stuck him on what looked like an enormous funeral pyre, while scenes of what looked like post-apocalyptic destruction played out on the big screens:
Again, we can think of some speculative ways in which it might make sense that this kind of thing could have a vote-dampening effect. One simple possibility is that the sight of fire presses subliminal buttons saying “don’t touch, stay away”.
Another possibility is that sending an act up in fire or smoke may make some viewers subconsciously think of that act as ephermeral, transient, not long for this world, on their way out, and thus not worth bothering to vote to keep around. Here’s another example that could have been tapping into this subliminal undercurrent:
This is Belle Amie in week 4 of 2010’s series, the Hallowe’en-themed performance of ‘Venus’ that got them eliminated. Here they are emerging from coffins (which, incidentally, are red and black. There were also bursts of fire during this performance).
Is the subliminal message here something like “Belle Amie are dead already, no point in voting for them”? Again: we wouldn’t go to the wall for this idea. But if we were running the show, it’s exactly the kind of thing we’d be interested in testing.
Moving away from hell and fire but maybe not death, what other subtle tactics might be working at a subliminal level? Here’s an interesting one we can’t remember seeing before, from week 2, when District 3 ended up in the bottom two:
For much of their performance, they were pictured against a backdrop of what appeared to be giant blades of grass and red poppies (a symbol associated with loss). Could this have been intended to metaphorically belittle them, by making us think of them – on some subconscious level of our minds – as being about as tall as dormice? Or to hint that they were about to be buried six feet under?
Here’s another from the same performance, showing the three boys on the Rebecca Ferguson Memorial Chicken Rotisserie, standing with their backs to each other and trapped in a cage of light:
What do we get from this image? When people stand with their backs to each other like this, it evokes them being cornered and powerless in the face of an all-pervasive threat. In addition, the cage of light serves to disconnect them from the audience.
And is there significance in standing with backs to each other? We occasionally wonder if groups do better in the vote when the staging shows them interacting in ways that suggest a synergistic bond, compared to when the staging suggests them being atomised. Here’s the opening shot of Nu Vibe’s staging in the week they were eliminated from the show last year – following tabloid reports that they didn’t get on well with each other, they were placed on five separate islands:
In general, we wonder whether plinths tend to convey negative subliminal messages. Not in all circumstances – often it’s necessary for an act to stand on a plinth to enable a big production with dancers all around them. But consider when an act is stuck on a plinth alone for no obvious choreographic reason – Melanie Masson in week 1, for instance:
What does this convey? Speculatively, we wonder if it makes it harder for the act to come across as humble, down-to-earth and connected to the audience. Kye was even higher up on his bonfire last Saturday. At the risk of sounding repetitive: again, we are being deliberately speculative with all these ideas, and we wouldn’t be at all surprised to find out that we’re barking up the wrong plinth.
What about subliminal messages when they want to boost, rather than dampen, votes for an act? Last year on Betsfactor, Richard developed a theory that producers were subliminally trying to associate Marcus Collins with the concept of “star”, through both words and images. We remembered that theory in week 1 this year when Ella appeared against this galactic backdrop:
Judges’ comments reinforced in words the visual impression, referring to Ella being from “another planet”.
We could go on – we haven’t even touched on the possibility of occasional subliminal messages in the lyrics of songs they choose for acts to sing, something we often wonder about (the classic and not-so-subliminal example being making Wagner sing “I’m a creep, I’m a weirdo. What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here”). Or indeed in the music that plays in the background during VTs – for instance, Sofabet commenter Nugg noted The Wanted’s “All Time Low” playing in District 3’s week 1 VT.
But we’ll leave it there for now. Let us repeat: we wouldn’t go to the wall for there being anything in the above examples, which is why we tend to stick to discussing tactics we’re more confident about. But we do find it intriguing and great fun to speculate about possible Derren Brownian tactics. And incidentally, in case you think we’re taking the great man’s name in vain, note that in the comments to our manipulative moments piece last year Sofabet commenter EM remarked:
I actually got into betting on the X Factor after reading a comment from Derren Brown. I can’t find the exact quote but he said that he loved the TV show and thought a lot of what they did was similar to what he does, making people feel like they have a free choice when in fact they’re influenced to feel like that… you must wonder whether they have a psychologist working on it.
If there is, we probably don’t spot more than a fraction of what’s being tried.
What do you think? Do you buy the idea that as much thought goes into this as our examples above would suggest? If so, what are your more outlandish theories of how the show might be subliminally trying to influence perceptions? Do let us know below. And if you haven’t already, pop over to Betsfactor to read Richard’s typically funny and perceptive “delight the demo” theory, posted today. Richard has promised to guest-blog for us at Sofabet soon – we can’t wait.