I have never seen Sanjaya, but I know who he is.
They have been discussing him in my subway train, deli line, and doctor's office. Does he have talent? Can he win? Who cares? Millions do. People I truly respect know who he is and have voted for - or against - him, the most polarizing public figure since Survivor's tribute to naked ambition, Richard Hatch.
Six seasons along, and the American Idol momentum still hasn't waned. I'm not a fan, but it doesn't matter; they aren't missing me. And while media watchers may predict the show has finally jumped the shark with this season's frenzy over a hapless long-haired teenager, the spectacle will no doubt steam ahead through to the finale with its characteristic verve.
With any success invariably comes a rush of imitators, and Idol has seen a slew of wannabes (some very successful) in its wake, including Dancing with the Stars and Grease: You're the One that I Want to name a few.
But while the entertainment industry is quick to recognize a winning proposition and replicate it, there is amazingly little examination of the real significance of these megahits. Most simplistically, they are an indicator of public mood. Do people love American Idol because we are worried about not being winners else- where? Meh, probably not.
Often, analysis of media wonders can go too deeply into the psyche. The New York Times' Alessandra Stanley is particularly fond of distilling media influences down to their deeper motivations. In one article last week, she drew a line between Idol's fragile democracy and presidential politics, a hot topic now that the show's Simon Cowell is threatening to leave the show if Sanjaya wins. "Idol... has its selection process backward," she wrote. "In this country, people can vote for whomever they want - even Al Gore in 2000 - but the last word is left to the Electoral College and even the justices of the Supreme Court." American Idol winners are judged by the people, for the people.
The real significance in American Idol, and in any resonant entertainment product, is what it makes people do. The miracle of Idol isn't the process of voting, it's that millions of people actually do it. Taking this view, the grassroots effort around The Passion of the Christ was a good indicator for how the 2004 presidential race would go - everything from outreach to the motivations of the individuals ran along a similar current.
Marketers more than ever need to focus on the action that a campaign motivates, not just the buzz around it or the brilliance of the idea. And marketers would do well to learn the ingredients to motivating that in the most successful campaigns. Dove's Real Beauty campaign must certainly fall in that category because far beyond the chatter about the merits of the idea and its novelty, actual women were motivated to log on to Web sites and share their own perceptions of beauty.
Action isn't just about sales. It's about engagement, which offers great long-term rewards. Most successful campaigns won't be as simple to understand as the voting trends of American Idol, but the goal should be to unlock the secret behind it.