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Too Much Reality Can Be Dangerous

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From the latest in bizarre consumer lawsuits, nine women are now threatening to sue the record label for American Idol star Clay Aiken after reading in a tabloid that the star is gay. An official complaint filed by the ladies to the Federal Trade Commission stated:

This is tantamount to a manufacturer concealing information about a defective product … As consumers, we feel ripped off. It is obvious now that the private Clay is very different from the manufactured packaged public Clay that was marketed to us.

The chances are this will get thrown out with the rest of the garbage threats attempted every year by people with nothing better to do than read the tabloids where the revelation originally came from, but it should sound warning signals to anyone involved in the Reality TV phenomenon. This is not the first scandal to erupt over the ethical practices of such TV shows’ marketing tactics. For the past year there has been no end of skepticism over the dubiousness of the whole package, from the selection and voting process to the treatment of the contestants who apply to achieve popular music fame like Aiken’s.

The problem comes from the degree to which such programmes involve the consumers to whom they are selling. Whereas traditional products and services necessarily kept a degree of distance from the consumer, and as such allowed the consumer to keep a certain level of perspective over the concept’s marketing practices, all aspects of the ‘reality’ phenomenon involve the customer in ways that no other business model has previously been able to do. On the one hand, this is certainly what gives them their competitive edge: a unique, interactive experience, and out of that the sort of brand relationships that marketers twenty years ago only dreamt of. But just as for many a business model before them, the creators of these shows may find that their key leverage ends up bringing them down if they are not careful.

The more any business model relies on its customers’ involvement as a means to its success, the more customers expect to be treated fairly with regard to disclosure. Customers want to be notified of anything they deem worthy. Ultimately, this means just about everything – what customer, after all, likes not to know – and the results can end up being virtually unmanageable.

What many reality TV producers haven’t yet cottoned to is the degree to which their viewers don’t just regard the shows as light entertainment – as they might have done so with traditional shows – but actually as something of their own. Coca-Cola made this same mistake in the 1980’s when it decided to put the traditional Coca-Cola to bed and release New Coke instead. To the horror of senior executives, the world demonstrated accusations of anything but murder over their favourite brand. Whereas Coke executives were looking at the sugar pop as just a drink lost in an ocean of marketing demographics, consumers saw the sugar water as very much a part of their lives.

The difficulty with reality TV programmes is that they are, in some cases, genuine lifestyle brands. At the same time as being amateur social experiments, they rely upon the heightened volatility of the emotions of the participants. This dual interactive manipulation of feelings, while enthralling, might just turn out to be a little too engaging for some.

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About Daniel M. Harrison

  • TBJ

    Great article.

    They are suing American Idol because Clay is gay? I should sue THEM for being so stupid.

  • S

    I hear that FTC complaint was filed by non-fans hoping to discredit Clay. I’m surprised no writer has picked up on that angle.

  • cg

    You wrote a whole article on a bogus complaint about a bogus scandal??

    A jerk Alleged . . . .
    NINE women are threatening . . .

    Notice that they did not REALLY go to a lawyer.
    Notice that the jerk has not REALLY provided any proof.

    But still – this manages to smear a good man’s name.
    Really sad statement about our society.

  • Wrong

    An FTC complaint can be filed online and real names don’t even need to be used. No fan board has been approached to join this group. No fan has been encouraged to add their names. Guess this “group” never heard of a complaint having more worth if more people are part of it. This is non-fans hoping for gullible media to pick up a non-story. Any thinking media person would see that. A better story is why non-fans spend so much time looking for ways to damage an entertainer’s reputation. And why the media hasn’t got a clue.

  • realitySUX

    While your main argument about viewers not realizing the unreality of reality TV may be sound, the avenue you chose to get to it is not. Your implication is that these fictitious nine people feel duped because they were sold a bill of goods about Clay Aiken by AMERICAN IDOL? Absolutely wrong. Anyone who watched Clay Aiken on American Idol knows full well that the show–Simon Cowell in particular–worked OVERTIME to imply that Clay Aiken WAS gay. Sticking him in pink dressing rooms; saying he belongs on Broadway; I believe he was even compared to Jiminy Cricket at some point.

    And that, of course, is proof that these supposed nine fans are full of it. Any fan of Clay Aiken has considered the fact that he may be gay since day one. Any fan who claims they had no idea this guy might be gay before the recent tabloid reports is lying. When they bought their 24 copies of his CD, on some level they knew they might be buying the CD of a (GASP!) gay man. Heck, in his famous ROLLING STONE cover article, the interviewer flat-out asked Aiken if he was gay. Aiken said no, but that’s not the point. “Are you gay?” is not a question that is asked of people no one thinks is gay. I wonder if any interviewer has ever asked Kid Rock that question.

    So yeah, idiots who watch reality TV do believe what they’re seeing is real, and that’s gonna get these reality shows in trouble. But this whole Clay Aiken brouhaha has nothing to do with that.

  • jiminycricketsaunt

    Jiminy Cricket is NOT gay!

  • NLW

    You’ve been taken in by an internet hoax designed to draw attention to the origional gay sex story. It had been running around the trash gossip blogs for over a month without being picked up by the legitimate press.
    The fake lawsuit has had the effect they were looking for. The story has jumped from the tabloids to the news casts because they can’t mention the suit without the accusations.
    They attack Aiken because they can’t stand his goody-two-shoes, holier-than-thou image.

  • are you kidding

    But, if some sleazeball said he had sex with Jiminy Cricket in a cheap motel, and the National Enquirer prints the story, then it must be true –

    Jiminy Cricket is GAY!

  • are you kidding

    I know you’re thinking about evidence.

    There doesn’t have to be any evidence that Jiminy Cricket is gay. Just a sleazeball and the National Enquirer is all it takes to make it so.

    And, there is no evidence that any of these so-called fans filing a complaint even exist. There are no last names and no locations.

    The media reporting this stuff is looking all kinds of stupid right now. Too bad that the days of real journalists is dead, and now it’s just copy and paste learned in a computer class or from Computers for Dummies.

  • Pinocchio

    Jiminy Cricket IS gay.

    I read it in the Enquirer AND the Star!!!

  • Kelly

    Well I, for one, do not believe any of this crap! Sounds to me like this John Paulus is just trying to cash in on the whole “Clay is gay” thing and is trying to ruin Clay’s career. Some people actually beleive the story, and they shouldn’t. Think about it, people! The story was printed in a tabloid! The tabloids are nothing but lies. Don’t believe any of that story. Clay even said himself in the Rolling Stone article that he doesn’t believe in premarital sex. He says that it’s better to wait until your married. He even said in the article that he was straight. Why not take his word for it, and just drop all this “Clay is gay” nonsense? This has gone too far, and it’s time to put an end to all this crap. I know I’m sick of it, and there’s not a doubt in my mind that Clay is too. Clay has said numerous times that he is straight, and I believe him. It’s time to put to the gay rumors to rest, once and for all.

  • Robert

    UM,,,Clay Aiken was in New York City on January 2, 2006. I know, cause me and my wife saw him there. so, how can he be in two places at once.

  • Kelly

    Excellent point, Robert! There’s proof right there that the whole tabloid story is false. Clay was in New York that night doing a concert, so how could he be in North Carolina that night, too? Like you said, Clay cannot be in two different places at once.

  • Kelly

    OK, I just realized that Clay’s Joyful Noise 2005 Tour ended in late December, so he wasn’t doing a concert that night. But I believe that he was in New York that night because several of his fans said he was and they saw him there. He could not have been in North Carolina, too. That whole Clay Aiken/John Paulus thing is totally made up!

  • Rene

    It’s intersting how Clay’s camp has not issued a statement.

  • This is exremely funny. The women were supposed to judge idol material on voice and personality if they desired. Right?

    How does being gay or how good he is in bed or how many times he pisses or how many guys or girls he fucks in a day come into the picture?

    Shows the low mentality of the people suing and gay societies should actually be suing the ladies. 😀

  • Truth

    Mr Aiken was in NYC on Jan 2, also the Dec 5 crap in Boston, Wyndham hotel is false also. He did not stay at the Wyndham when he was in Boston. He has behind the scenes giving proof. Why do you think this is mainly in the tabloids and gay mags because he DIDN’T do it!

  • kt


  • nancy

    So sad that Clay is such a target of homophobes. IF he is gay, it’s not his doing he was born that way and he is STILL a great guy and a really good singer. I am now GLAD he didn’t win the title although I kind of cried when he didn’t. Can you IMAGINE the hateful attacks he would have got trying to knock him off his winner’s pedestal?! My gosh, whew!
    I guess guys are way jealous of the feminine fan clubs and attention that they think that a more macho guy, like them, is more deserving of. Like TRUMAN CAPOTE, who was attacked by a guy jealous of his girl fans drooling, when he put his thing by Tru’s face, Tru said ‘What, do I sign it?’ He should have said, ‘I better just initial it, haha!’

  • Marvin

    Stumbled across this old article and found the comments hilarious in light of Clay “coming out” in PEOPLE magazine and now being an openly gay man. Thanks for the laughs.