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Phrase Of The Day: Taylor Hicks Syndrome

April 6th, 2009 · 5 Comments

“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.)

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5 responses so far ↓

  • 1 seriously // Apr 7, 2009 at 9:36 am

    You missed one important part of the syndrome.
    Its what happens when you don’t go along to get along and the people who made you decide to try and break you.

  • 2 rollseyes // Apr 7, 2009 at 3:07 pm

    Uh… William Hung’s audition was featured as an outtake of crazy performances. He never made it to Hollywood and no one voted for him. They kept him in the spotlight because he was quirky and funny. He developed a cultish following only.

  • 3 econgirl // Apr 7, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Fair enough- please forgive me for my lack of detailed knowledge regarding American Idol. 🙂 I suppose the question then is whether this cultish following actually bought his album when it came out.

    That said, the point regarding the disconnect between wanting someone to win and actually thinking he or she is the best still holds. As an example, I point you to the current voting results for Time’s Most Influential People:,28757,1883644,00.html

    (unless of course you define “influence” as “getting people to do random stuff because you asked them to”…)

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