“They begged us to vote for a guy, and now that he’s won, nobody’s buying his album.” –Wyatt Cenac, The Daily Show
The above quote basically illustrates Taylor Hicks Syndrome in a nutshell. (If you had to click on that last hyperlink there, you are strengthening the point that I am trying to make.) In theory, American Idol is brilliant- given that people get to vote on who continues on and actually wins the competition (where the prize is a recording contract!), one would think that the show acts like a several million person focus group. In this way, the company offering the ($1 million) recording contract should be sitting pretty, since the American public has already supposedly decided that it likes the American Idol winner.
In reality, sometimes this works really well and sometimes, well, less well. Furthermore, there isn’t a lot of correlation between the popularity of the show (or the amount of votes) and the ultimate sellability (is that a word?) of the winner. Why is this? The simple answer is that people often behave differently when asked to put their money where their mouths are than when asked hypothetical questions about what they “would” do. Not to toot my own horn on bahalf of my field of study or anything, but this is a large part of the reason why economists try to replicate decision-making with actual money as closely as possible rather than relying on surveys and such. (Economists have even been known to go to developing countries to conduct experiments because they can get a lot more leverage with their research budgets. Creepy, but true.)
So the lesson for today is that “How much would you pay for this?”- even though it is arguably a better question than “How much do you like this?”, it is still not a reliable indicator of marketability.
Another potential explanation is that people that vote on American Idol really are voting for who they want to see win the contest rather than whose music they actually want to listen to in the long term. As Exhibit A, I present to you William Hung…
(Update: Yes, I realize, or at least I do now, that no one actually voted for William Hung. In that sense, he embodies the converse of Taylor Hicks Syndrome in that people didn’t think he was good enough to move on yet they bought his album. So there.)