The Antonella Effect

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Michael Becker / Fox / AP

Antonella Barba performs on Fox-TV's American Idol.

Fueled by a 9% drop in Chinese stocks, the Dow dropped 416 points last Tuesday, the largest single-day drop in over five years. In one day $632 billion dollars in value was erased from the U.S. stock market. News of the precipitous drop dominated cable news and newspaper coverage. It would be fair to guess that searches leading to news sites would focus on the market correction, perhaps the growing unease in Iran or perhaps the pending collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market. To the contrary, news searches last week were completely dominated by one individual: Antonella Barba.

Unknown to the American public a few weeks ago, this 20-year-old Catholic University student and struggling American Idol contestant vaulted in popularity last week on news that she had posed for some revealing photos. Of the top 10 searches to 6,489 news sites in the U.S., the term, "Antonella Barba," was the most popular search term for the week ending March 3, 2007. "Antonella Barba photos," and "Antonella Barba pictures" were also in the top 10 search queries of over 400,000 terms captured last week. The search associated with the stock market drop, simply the query "stock market," was in the 327th position.

It's a story as old as the Internet. Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction, Paris Hilton's sex video and Britney Spears' unfortunate paparazzi photos have all led to instant online popularity explosions. The difference with Antonella is that prior to her public revelations, unlike those revealed before her, she was an unknown in a competition whose winners will be chosen in a phone-in popularity contest.

Which leads to the question: can skin win on a show that, defying many critics, has produced multiple platinum albums, an Emmy-winning artist, and now an Oscar winner? Analyzing the top Antonella photo site, a one-page collection of the revealing pictures in question, highlights the biggest issue for Antonella fans, dubbed "Fantonellas" by some.

The site, which didn't exist two weeks ago, became the fourth most popular celebrity site visited last week, out of 835 sites in the category. Visitors over the last two weeks were predominantly males (70%) between the ages of 18 and 34 (54%), more likely to engage in online images searches than pick up the phone to vote for the next American Idol. In contrast, visitors to the official American Idol site (the best proxy for potential voters) are predominantly females, 35-44 years old.

But there's hope yet for the vocally challenged contestant and her voyeuristic fans. The anti-Idol website is urging its visitors, coincidentally the same demographic as Antonella picture seekers, to join its grassroots campaign to prolong Antonella's stay by picking up the phone.

With over 80 times the searches for "oil prices," 50 times the searches for "Iran" and 35 times the searches for "stock market," it's alarming to see how searches for a 20-year-old's wet T-shirt pictures can capture the nation's attention, eclipsing the most pressing issues of the day. I only wish there was a way I could have invested in Antonella's popularity last week; she obviously fared much better than my stock portfolio.

Bill Tancer is general manager of global research at Hitwise.