Everything I Know About Marketing I Learned From Susan Boyle

Or, the Seven Habits of Highly Effective Frumpy Scottish Singers

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What can we learn from viral-video sensation Susan Boyle? For one thing, you can make being a frump a good thing. Simon Dumenco lays out how you too can glean insight from a 47-year-old woman who lives with her cat, Pebbles, and, oh yeah, sings.

1. Accentuate the negative

I used to live in Baltimore, filmmaker John Waters' hometown, and I remember him once telling me why he's kept that creepy, pencil-thin mustache all these years. Basically, his whole P.O.V. when it comes to personal style is: accentuate the negative. (Actually, that's his whole P.O.V. as an artist, too.) John knows he's a sort of creepy-looking guy, so at some point he figured he might as well just go with it.

Susan Boyle
Susan Boyle
Everybody keeps on calling talent show contestant Susan Boyle's triumph of talent over style a sign that "authenticity" is what matters right now, but I think it's more like resignation. Resignation to harsh corporeal reality, as in Eff it, this is who I am and this is what I look like. But remember, coming to that resigned realization can be an active choice. For her "Britain's Got Talent" performance, Boyle put on a nice frock, but clearly decided to not do much with her wiry mess of a hairdo. If you've seen any of her TV appearances since then, you know that Boyle can also choose to (sort of) comb and style her hair (and slap on a little lipstick). To circle back to John Waters' quasi-comic facial hair, at some point -- let's just admit this -- Boyle must have said to herself, "OK, these are my eyebrows, I just don't have the time or the energy to tame them, and, gosh, this look worked for Groucho Marx." (FYI: Fake Tina Fey's plea to Britain regarding Susan Boyle's eyebrows.) In other words, it's probably more about exhaustion -- she's 47 and life hasn't been easy -- than anything.

2. If you're going to be a frump, be a lovable frump

Authenticity only works if it's endearing. There's been so much said about how ugly Susan Boyle is, but the truth is, she is quite literally attractive (Merriam-Webster Dictionary: "1: having or relating to the power to attract; 2a: arousing interest or pleasure: charming; 2b: appealing"). She's got a doughy mom face, but it's the way she deploys that doughy mom face that matters. Oh, that great sweet smile! You know that if she was a teller at your local bank branch, she'd be your favorite. Or she'd be everyone's go-to greeter at Walmart. She'd never have to sing a note and you'd still totally love her.

Anyway, the marketing world -- the part of it that isn't obsessed with overpaying conventionally attractive celebrity spokesbots to endorse products -- already knows all about the nature of Susan Boyle's appeal. Witness the ad industry's history of celebrating lovable schlumps over the years, from Ol' Lonely, the Maytag repairman (was he ever kissed?), to Wendy "the Snapple Lady" Kaufman.

3. Come equipped with your own soundbites

Geez, speaking of accentuating the negative, could Boyle have set herself up any more brilliantly as a sympathetic figure for Our Troubled Times? Unemployed! Never been kissed! Lives alone with a cat named Pebbles! (If this can be a best-seller, well, I'll be shocked if Pebbles can't land a six-figure book contract.)

4. Subtext, Sclubtext. Just spit it out already!

In both "Britain's Got Talent" and "American Idol," the judges are always going on about song choice. Susan Boyle obviously chose a song that's perfect for her pipes. But just as important, she chose a song with lyrics that laid bare the subtext of not only her life, but, again, Our Troubled Times. I mean, sheesh: "I dreamed a dream in time gone by/When hope was high/And life worth living." Not to mention "I had a dream my life would be/So different from this hell I'm living."

(To her credit, she skipped past the stanza with the lyrics, "There was a time when love was blind"!)

I confess I've never seen "Les Miserables," the musical from which "I Dreamed a Dream" comes, so I didn't know that the character Fantine, who sings it, was alone and unemployed too. No matter. The way Boyle sung it, it could have been some lost national anthem. It was practically an Obama stump speech. Or an Obama stump speech as a music video reimagined by Will.i.am.

5. Pluck is everything

Have you seen "Went the Day Well?"? It's a peculiar 1942 British war classic in which a small village, Bramley End, is stealthily occupied by Nazis who disguise themselves as British soldiers. (It's based on a Graham Greene short story.) I swear, Susan Boyle is in that movie! In Bramley End, there's no shortage of plucky, frumpy villagers who, once they discover the deception, almost cheerfully pick off their Nazi foes. I'm talking, like, old ladies with rifles. It's pretty awesome.

Anyway, that's part of the appeal of The Susan Boyle Story: She picked off her foes (Simon Cowell et al, the skeptical audience) with understated pluck. To sell anything in this economy -- especially yourself -- you definitely need pluck.

6. Everybody needs a good cry right now, so you might as well give it to them

I'll defer to Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum on the power of Susan Boyle to make us tear up: "The unpackaged artistic power of the unstyled, un-hip, un-kissed Ms. Boyle let me feel, for the duration of one blazing showstopping ballad, the meaning of human grace. She pierced my defenses. She reordered the measure of beauty. And I had no idea until tears sprang how desperately I need that corrective from time to time."

7. Get on the Google Dole

Here's an astonishing bit of news from The Washington Post this morning: "According to Visible Measures, which tracks videos from YouTube, MySpace and other video-sharing sites, all Boyle-oriented videos -- including clips of her TV interviews and her recently released rendition of 'Cry Me a River,' recorded 10 years ago for a charity CD -- have generated a total of 85.2 million views. Nearly 20 million of those views came overnight." She's on track to become the biggest viral-video sensation ever. (Update: According to a Visible Measures press release that arrived in our inboxes at 2:15 this afternoon, Susan Boyle has now accumulated more than 100 million views.)

What makes this possible? Corporations like Google, which owns YouTube, willing to put up with hemorrhaging money. Unemployed Boyle has been on the dole in the U.K., and now she's on the Google Dole.

Just how screwed up is the viral-video economy? See Benjamin Wayne's Silicon Alley Insider piece, "YouTube is Doomed", which offered a particularly caustic take on a recent Credit Suisse report that puts YouTube's estimated 2009 losses at nearly half a billion dollars -- thanks to ever-escalating bandwidth costs and nowhere near enough advertising support to pay the bills.

In other words, Google can't really afford more Susan Boyles! Nobody can! It's a quirk of the viral-video bubble economy we're living in that we all get to enjoy this spectacle mostly thanks to the largess of a corporate superpower. Watching the numbers -- and the bandwidth bills -- for Susan Boyle run up into the stratosphere, I sort of feel like how I felt watching the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics: Thank god somebody is willing to take a huge bath to keep the world entertained.

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Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age.

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