Our last article set out to help new readers understand the Sofabet perspective on the X Factor. It explained why the show’s producers want certain acts to do well, and observed that producers employ various tactics to motivate votes for those acts and demotivate votes for others.
Today’s article is an in-depth case study on the treatment of recent eliminee Abi Alton. We hope it will be an accessible introduction for newbies to the kind of tactics used to manipulate viewers’ perceptions of acts. For more seasoned observers, too, I hope you’ll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. I believe that rewatching an act’s entire journey with the benefit of hindsight, as I did to write this piece, is always a worthwhile learning exercise. It sharpens our ability to read future clues.
Abi is a good case study because she seemed to be shown so much favour at the audition stage, the betting markets had her vying for favouritism. But by the time the live shows began, there were telltale clues that she was being treated much less favourably. As I’ll explain, this led me to risk £12,000 that Abi wouldn’t win the competition.
Room audition: “I’m not sure you’re right for the show”
Here’s a belief some may find controversial: I think producers sometimes start to style contestants, with their consent, even before their first audition is filmed. (Rebecca Ferguson and Ella Henderson are other examples that spring to mind). On the numerous YouTube clips of Abi’s pre-X Factor gigs, there’s a lack of flowers. Yet throughout her X Factor journey, from the room audition onwards, flowers are a consistent visual motif for Abi.
Flowers are beautiful but fragile. Associating them with Abi suggests that she is, too. Nicole even calls her a “delicate flower” in the third live show. As we shall see, right from the start, the show associates certain concepts with Abi: nervous, brave, different, unique, talented musician. It suggests to us that producers had put a good deal of thought into how they’d portray Abi even before her room audition.
(We don’t know if Abi was invited to audition or walked in off the street, although it would be surprising if she hadn’t been on producers’ radar given that she had reportedly gigged with former contestants James Arthur and Jake Quickenden).
We meet Abi and her “unpaid roadie”, her dad, and hear about her checkout job at Morrisons, and her nerves. With guitar in hand and flowers in hair, she has a bohemian, unthreatening aura. The judges reinforce this: Sharon immediately calls her “sweet”, encouraging viewers to feel the same way.
As Abi launches into ‘Travelling Soldier’ by The Dixie Chicks, we see a cutaway shot to Nicole’s attention being quickly won. Cutaway shots of judges’ reactions are an important way of suggesting to viewers how they should be reacting to the audition.
Because first impressions count, we suspect producers make sure the judges are primed on how to react – and what to say. Gary and Sharon both call her “unique”, with Sharon adding “you have a great sense of who you are”. Gary, Louis and Nicole all express worries about whether she can “project” in the arena or on a Saturday night.
At the time, we interpreted this as straightforward set up for the following night’s arena audition show: the expressing of these doubts about Abi’s ability to perform in an arena seemed intended to create tension, with the payoff of a feelgood moment as she succeeds.
In retrospect, though, perhaps the doubts were intended to prime viewers not only for the arena audition but also for the longer term – especially when Louis says “I’m not sure you’re right for the show”.
Arena audition: “A really magical moment”
Sure enough, Abi duly got the pimp slot (the last to perform) in the next night’s arena audition show. The VT reminded us of her nerves and Louis’s doubts.
And if there’s a lot of repetition in these messages, that’s intentional on the part of producers. You don’t persuade your audience by telling them just once.
Abi explains that she’s had her heart broken and is going to sing a song she wrote about it: “I’m not very good at explaining my emotions, so songwriting is my way of doing that.” She again has flowers in her hair, this time white with matching singlet, shorts and shoe. White, the colour of innocence and purity, has also frequently been associated with Abi throughout her time on the show.
In the arena auditions and at bootcamp, the show uses cutaway reaction shots to audience members as well as to judges to suggest to viewers how they should be reacting. The audience reaction shots here are all sympathetic, willing Abi to do well.
Abi gets a standing ovation, and starts to cry. Gary explains: “There was a really magical moment … when everybody started to stand and your dream had come to life, what an incredible audition that was.” It all seems to be very positive, and at this point the betting markets had Abi vying for favouritism to win the show.
The positivity in Abi’s edits continues during her performance of ‘I Wanna Dance With Somebody’. There are numerous reaction shots of people looking enchanted. We see both an audience member, and Melanie McCabe waiting backstage, exclaim that she’s really good. Abi is dressed in white again, apart from a black hat with a ring of flowers on its brim.
However, with hindsight there is less positivity to the edit of the panel’s comments. There are already six girls sitting on the chairs for Nicole’s judges’ houses positions, one of whose places Abi will have to take. Louis calls the six girls currently on the chairs “amazing”, while his only epithet for Abi is “different”. We don’t hear anything from Sharon, while Gary wheels out another Abi buzzword, “brave” (he also says “gorgeous”).
Interestingly, Nicole doesn’t compliment Abi at all. She merely says she wouldn’t have chosen the song, “but I’ve listened to what the other judges have to say”. As she agonises about which of the six girls she should replace, she consults Gary, who repeats the word “different”.
The sense is that Abi earns her place not through her superiority, but because she offers variety.
Judges’ Houses: “One-trick pony”
By judges’ houses, there are mounting signs that Abi is now being portrayed unhelpfully. The edit interrupts Abi’s performance of Yazoo’s ‘Only You’ to go back to a VT of her talking to camera. This prevents viewers from getting into her performance; favoured acts tend to get their songs shown without interruption, as Hannah and Tamera did.
Even worse is what Abi is shown saying: “There’s a part of me that thinks I’m not good enough”. Later, as Abi waits to be summoned to Nicole’s sofa for the news, she is shown saying the same thing again: “My confidence has been knocked with people telling me I’m not good enough, playing all those gigs where people don’t listen”.
This is the “don’t think of an elephant” effect. What do you think of when someone says “don’t think of an elephant”? You think of an elephant. Ostensibly, we are being shown Abi’s self-doubt so that we can feel good about her vindication. But what’s also going on is that the show is planting the thought in viewers’ minds: She’s not good enough. Not good enough. Showing us Abi saying this once may be accidental – but twice?
After her performance, Nicole worries to celebrity helper Mary J Blige that Abi is a “one trick pony” – again, planting that thought in viewers’ minds. Mary responds, “It’s a great trick. But will it continue to work? I don’t know.”
This seemed a pretty damning way to send Abi into the live shows, with their themed weeks. As her edit at judges’ houses suggested to us that Abi went into the lives as the “gamma girl” – the least favoured by producers in the category – we slated her for a “shock” early exit in our speculative pre-live shows prediction article.
Live Show 1: “Bum notes”
The revelation of song choices the day before the first live show seemed to confirm that producers didn’t envisage Abi having a long run in the competition. She got Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’. A slowed-down arrangment of this iconic rock tune had been used for 2011 gamma girl Sophie Habibis in the week before she was eliminated. Producers will have known that this song had done Sophie few favours.
In contrast, 2012’s singer/songwriter female with guitar, Lucy Spraggan, had been given the chance to perform her own composition in the first live show.
On a superficial level, Abi wasn’t treated badly in the first live show. Her VT focused on her down-to-earth qualities – she called herself a “geek” and was shown being endearingly self-conscious in a photoshoot. Her staging reinforced the consistent visual motifs: flowers in her hair and on her dress, and a white piano.
We believe that what judges say in their comments after live shows is largely scripted – though not infallibly, as we shall see. This time, the comments focused on Abi’s musical talent and sense of self-identity. Louis said: “You’re a great musician”. Sharon called her “multi-talented”, Gary a “multi-instrumentalist”. Nicole said: “You’re the only one who made a song your own style… you stay true to yourself.” Louis even ventured the thought, albeit half-heartedly, that it could be a “hit record”.
So why did none of this budge my opinion of Abi being producers’ gamma girl? I believe that the first live show is the most forgiving to the contestants. There’s a sense of giving most acts a fair crack of the whip, so the producers can see who has traction with the voting public, in case that presents a surprise that changes their plans.
But there was another “don’t think of an elephant” telltale clue: Abi’s VT was edited to end with her telling viewers “I just hope that I don’t hit any bum notes.” By planting this thought in viewers’ minds just before she performed, producers were priming viewers to listen out for bum notes.
Again, cutaway shots to the judges’ reactions are important in the live shows. Here we saw Sharon looking down, uninterested. We assume that when producers show us judges looking down, or bored (a look perfected by Tulisa against acts not in her own category), they want to suggest to the viewing public that they should be reacting in the same way.
And if you’re reading this and thinking that I’m over-analysing, it may well be that sometimes on Sofabet we see meaning where there is none, but all I can say is that sooner or later the conclusions we draw from this kind of analysis inevitably bump up against reality. Hoping I’d read the clues correctly, between live shows 1 and 2 I set about “laying” Abi – that is, betting she would not win the competition. If I’d been wrong, I stood to lose £12,000.
Live Show 2: “Sexy feet”
The pre-show revelation that Abi would be singing Kylie’s dance classic ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ was further damning evidence that producers had no interest in her. As with her first choice, the lyrics and song offered no connection to her as an artist. There was no sense of playing to her strengths.
As a result, we tipped her at speculative odds of 16-1 to be eliminated that weekend. And, in the show, there were plenty of signs that the knives were out.
Her VT referenced her nerves, and had her saying she wanted to show everyone she could “actually sing not just go on the stage and survive”. That’s another “don’t think of an elephant” moment – planting the thought that survival is the best she can hope for.
In stark contrast to the obvious ease between Nicole and Hannah in the latter’s VT, Abi’s VT portrayed her as uncomfortable in her “superstar” mentor’s company. Nicole took Abi to “bond and bowl”, but the end of the VT still had Abi talking in the aspirational future tense about their relationship and her comfort levels on stage: “The more I get to know her, the more I’m going to feel at ease when I go out there” (as opposed to “now I’ve got to know her, I feel at ease”).
The staging was terrible: raindrops on the big screen, and dancers with pink umbrellas. It confused us at the time, as we suspected there must be some message in it but we couldn’t figure out what it was. In hindsight, here’s a speculative theory – did producers intend those raindrops to resemble tears, the subliminal suggestion being that Abi cries a lot? Her week 1 VT had included a slightly barbed line from Nicole about “waterproof mascara”.
During her performance, in which she was clearly not comfortable with the routine, cutaway shots showed stony-faced judges. We suspect it wasn’t coincidental that the choreography of the closing image had all the dancers looking anywhere but towards Abi, as though embarrassed.
A rule of thumb here on Sofabet is that strongly positive comments from the judges motivate people to vote, and unfairly harsh criticism motivates people to vote out of sympathy, but lukewarm praise doesn’t motivate votes. One variant of lukewarm praise is being nice about something tangential, which suggests that you couldn’t think of anything nice to say about the actual performance.
So we had Gary saying he loved “what the dancers were doing”, Nicole praising Abi for “not hiding behind your instruments” and looking “hot”, and Sharon referencing her “sexy feet”. Both Sharon and Gary also hit the “brave” buzzword again.
An exception to the rule about positive comments motivating votes is when the praise is obviously absurd, as with Nicole oozing insincerity as she claimed: “I much preferred your version to the original.” (Another example is the performance which landed Kye Sones in the bottom two in week 3 last year, when Nicole and Tulisa compared him to Chris Martin. Surely, in both cases, most viewers will have reacted with “Really?! I don’t think so!”)
Dermot can always be relied upon to reinforce what the judges are doing, and he too praises something other than the singing with the parting comment about her performance: “Nice to see you walking.” So, in summary: Abi was brave, has sexy feet, and walked.
Live show 3: “Put the kettle on”
‘Moon River’ as a song choice didn’t seem so bad for Abi. Dated yes, but whimsical, romantic and iconic. Her VT reinforced the idea of her returning to her comfort zone. She had flowers on her dress again. The staging seemed helpful at the time – though watching it back, I noticed the guitarist had a much brighter spotlight on him than Abi did on her, perhaps intended to give the subliminal impression that he was the bigger attraction.
Judges’ comments were facinating this week. Were they intended to be so mean and make her cry, which is always a good way of motivating viewers to support an act? Watching them back suggests they weren’t.
Louis, arguably the most on-message of all the judges, set the tone with textbook faint praise: “You came back fighting, you put yourself in the race, we saw the real Abi. I love your voice.” Sharon started similarly, saying that Abi sang beautifully and using that word “brave” again. We reckon that what she said next was improvised. Unwisely.
Our guess is that Sharon had been asked to suggest that Abi needs to show more charisma next week. Unfortunately, she chose to lead up to this point by saying that Abi’s performances are currently so dull, people at home will be going to put the kettle on and make a cup of tea instead of listen to them. It was a cruel thing to say, and not surprising that poor Abi started to well up.
It also made Gary’s comments feel much harsher than they actually were, if you look at them in isolation – that he used to love her, but that she’s losing him. This is when the tears start. We suspect they might not have done if Sharon hadn’t overstepped the mark.
As further evidence that the panel hadn’t intended to make Abi cry, they seemed to panic at this turn of events. Dermot went back to Sharon so the latter could reassure her that she does have charisma. Sharon sounded genuinely annoyed when she said, “don’t cry, don’t do that”.
Nicole did her best to rescue the situation: “Mrs O is only trying to help you, she sees it in you like I see it in you and we all see it”. Dermot then tried to suggest to viewers that the tears were unwarranted: “I hate to see you upset. Why are you upset? Because no-one’s questioning how good your voice is.”
Every year, after the final, producers publish the vote percentages for the series. It’s a keenly-anticipated moment on Sofabet. One of the things we’re looking forward to finding out this year is how much of a vote spike Abi’s tears gave her.
Live show 4: “I will survive”
At any rate, producers changed tack in week 4. They seemed to realise that in order to bring closure to Abi’s narrative line, they now had to offer her redemption.
So Abi got to choose the song – ‘I Will Survive’, a disco classic which at least references heartbreak and so is more suitable for a slowed down “Abi-fication” than either of the completely unsuitable choices with which she’d been lumbered in the first two weeks. She did her own arrangement. And it was a triumph. In her VT, she said that the judges’ reaction from the previous week “broke my heart”; as she completed her song, the image on the giant screen behind her showed a heart being mended.
Even in her moment of vindication, however, producers were careful to keep a lid on any positive momentum that could have been generated. The judges’ praise focused on all the familiar themes – Sharon used the word “brave” four times, and we were told repeatedly that Abi knows who she is as an artist.
What’s significant is what they didn’t say. They didn’t call her a “world class talent”, or a “recording artist”, or a “star”. Had producers been thinking of Abi as an act they wanted in the final, or who they thought could sell records, this was a performance they would have put in the pimp slot and praised to the heavens. They didn’t.
Which suggested to me that, having fulfilled the obligation of mending her heart, they would now be looking to kill her off next week.
Live Show 5: “I’m gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die, my, my”
We assume the show has some influence over the press – it can offer, or threaten to withhold, juicy exclusives. Hence we assume that any press coverage about acts is either planted by the show or, at least, something they don’t really mind appearing. When midweek press saw the Kingsland Road boys claiming that Abi was “not so sweet … not so innocent”, we took that as a sign that Abi’s grave was being dug.
Then came her song choice, ‘That’s Life’, which had been sung twice in previous big band weeks, each time resulting in the act – Miss Frank and Scott Bruton – being eliminated. The lyrics talk about calmly accepting failure, and conclude with “I’m gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die, my, my”. The song choice was evidence enough for us to tip Abi to be eliminated at odds of 9/4.
The X Factor is all about an act’s “journey”, and we believe that one way the show tries to demotivate votes is to suggest to viewers that the act’s journey has come to a natural end. Abi’s VT had that “end of narrative arc” feel. We were reminded she’s been gigging since she was 14, and reintroduced to her supportive dad, last seen in such detail before her room audition. As they share a meal in an empty chippy, Abi is shown telling her father in a rather teenager-ly way: “Don’t get too excited.”
Abi was put on first in the running order. As a rule, early acts are more likely to be forgotten by the time the phone lines open. Producers can make this more likely by following the act with a really memorable performance, a tactic we refer to as shoving down the memory hole. Abi was duly followed by Sam Bailey meeting Michael Bolton and giving a barnstorming rendition of ‘New York New York’. Then came fellow big-hitter Nicholas McDonald.
Even more ingeniously, between Abi and Sam Bailey was the much-hyped John Lewis Christmas advert, specially introduced by the ITV continuity announcer. The cumulative effect was to wipe poor Abi from viewers’ memories.
Styling and staging were interesting. For the first time, Abi was not wearing her trademark glasses, meaning she had lost some of her identity. For the first time she was standing on a plinth, which we suspect subliminally makes an act seem less humble and more disconnected from the studio audience.
This time, the judges pitched their comments just right, a mixture of faint praise and mild criticism. Sharon wanted to see “more sassiness”, echoing the “more charisma” line of week 3 – but rather than dwelling on the current lack of sassiness, Sharon instead merely remarked that she’d like to see more “next week”.
We believe that this kind of casual implication that an act will be here next week is used as a tactic to lull viewers into thinking that the act is safe, and doesn’t need their votes.
Gary’s comments were nothing but kind, calling Abi a “musician among musicians” – so instead of crying, Abi tells Dermot it was “my best performance and I really enjoyed it”. In my view this sealed her fate, by reinforcing the idea that she was now happy and so her fans didn’t have to keep her in for another week to prove a point.
Dermot delivered the coup de grace, as he so often does, asking about her dad and eliciting the answer “it’s his favourite song”. We then cut to Abi’s proud dad in the audience. It felt as if the words “The End” should have come up on screen, and the credits roll.
Nervous, brave, different, a talented musician, a delicate flower – but not, evidently, ever intended by producers to be an X Factor winner.
So why put her there in the first place? We suppose she was intended to tick a demographic niche, to give the geeky unselfconfident girls someone to identify with, to give the show a little patina of musical respectability as well as some variety, and not to pose too strong a threat to the presumed Plan A for this year, from the same category, Tamera.
And while last week’s press stories about the eliminee were all about Kingsland Road dissing Abi, this week’s are all about Abi supporting Tamera.
We have said before that, by now, people should know what the deal is when they audition for the X Factor – you get prime time exposure which you can hope to use as a springboard into some kind of career if you play your cards right, but at the price of giving up control to the show’s producers over how you are packaged and presented to the public. Abi’s journey should be a cautionary tale about how high that price can be.