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Home > Blog > In Defense of Celebrities (Sort Of)
Out of Our Minds
Wednesday, September 01, 2004 12:50 PM
In Defense of Celebrities (Sort Of)
Anita Sharpe on Business

people mag.jpgWhat are you more likely to pick up in a waiting room? Vanity Fair or The Atlantic? Anyone in the magazine business has to spend some time thinking about celebrities, because, like it or not, they sell magazines.

Ann Moore, CEO of Time Inc., once said that picking the right cover for People magazine can drive an unbudgeted $1 million to the bottom line. Indeed, just look at celebrity-driven titles like US and In Touch -- first-half newsstand sales jumped 54% and 67% respectively.

Actors sell, musicians sell, but putting a non-Kennedy-related politician on a magazine cover almost always is the kiss of death.

Why the celebrity fascination and why is it escalating? I think it's at least partly related to our own desires for more creative work. People want to read about people who at least appear to be pursuing their passions. As for politicians -- well, their work comes a little too close to the bureaucracy of cubicle culture to be truly inspiring.

For our part, we just shipped the cover shot for Worthwhile to the printer yesterday. While we have a few celebrities featured in the premiere issue, we decided against a celebrity cover. Instead, we chose a photo that we have never before seen -- or anything even close -- on a business magazine. It's an image that speaks volumes about the way our work lives are changing.


Dave - 9/3/2004 6:47:31 AM
Brent... no, Arnold didn't win because of his celebrity. But you know what? I'm kind of sure he would have LOST without it.
Robert - 9/2/2004 7:23:23 PM
Absolutely, give most people the choice between a People-like magazine (or tv show or book or whatever) vs. The Atlantic, and the celebrity coverage wins -- but maybe there are shreds of optimism for those of us who worry about that. Clearly there are more celebrity-driven media out there, but seems there's more media out there on everything and anything. As in many things, let's blame our parents! We've always been a culture in which 'soft' news beats out 'hard' news in our water-cooler chatter ... Joe DiMaggio hits a smooth one out of the park, Jean Harlow gets a new hair-do, or Lucy and Ricky have a baby (ok, technically, just Lucy), this stuff has nearly always captured our collective share-of-mind over even the most passionate debates on Capitol Hill and at The Brookings Institution.

Regarding what sells a magazine, as in most if not all businesses, being true to your original promise to customers ultimately wins, and it seems Worthwhile has already figured that out. Readers expect celebs on the cover of People, but more times than not, a 'soft' news story on the cover of a Time or Newsweek (e.g., the big new Hollywood movie) will sell less than when those magazines stick to the 'hard' news of the moment, or what geeks like me call their 'core competency.' (One exception is the recently-deceased celebrity, especially the recently-deceased celebrity who went before his/her time -- everyone seems to want to read about them as quickly as possible, whereever they can, and if there's a fiery crash involved, KA-CHING!!) ... Perhaps that obsession is another we should be analyzing, what's up with that??!!

Brent P. Newhall - 9/2/2004 5:12:19 PM
Schwarzenegger (sp?) didn't win the California election solely because he's a celebrity.
anita - 9/2/2004 2:43:02 PM
Mason: I love your line, 'Celebrities speak with authority, and we would like to.' I think that nails it.
Mason - 9/2/2004 2:15:07 PM
This is very interesting to me. I commented with a member of my company's board a while back that Americans today value and assign credibility to celebrity -- more presicely, ENTERTAINMENT celebrity -- more than almost anything else. Don't quite buy it? Schwarzenegger is now governor, and among others considering a bid for higher elective office are former Access Hollywood host Pat O'Brien, gutter man Jerry Springer (I guess at least he was mayor of Cincinnati, so somehow that lunatic had elective appeal), and now -- of all people -- Joe Piscopo.

There are other categories of celebrity, too. For example, financial celebrity, like Jack Welch, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates. Even these people can translate that kind of success into positions of political authority: former Goldman Sachs CEO Jon Corzine is now a US senator. Or, the ultimate current crossover: Trump is now a Hollywood success, and Mark Cuban is about to be.

Then, there's your category of celebrity activists -- Bono stamping out third world debt, Barbra Streisand and Alec Baldwin stamping out anything that hints of conservatism, Meryl Streep trying to stamp out the spraying of Alar on apples. As celebrities, they (at least) assume they can use celebrity to amplify their personal points of view, and (at most, or worst) presume because of their celebrity their opinions and beliefs are worthy of attention from and adoption by others.

It seems like an endless circuit: The more celebrity you achieve, the more influence you have, so the more you speak out, thus the more celebrity and influence you have.

So, why the endless fascination with celebrity by the soccer mom in Des Moines and the store clerk in Amarillo?

Here's my amateur psychologist viewpoint: Americans in particular are dissatisfied with the type of contented existence led by our grandparents in the 1950s, where a house and one car and a steady job were more than enough. It's important to find a way to make yourself admired, successful or perceived as successful, to be seen as a person of relevance. To do so, you need to do things like reflect the newest thoughts, trends, fashion styles, and lifestyles; the most visible and believed generators of these trends are celebrities. Celebrities don't necessarily (and in most cases don't, thank you for your input, Paris Hilton) offer any more substance than do Ruth Bader Ginsburg or Bill Moyers or Bill Richardson, but they do get all the attention. So that's where ours is also directed. We borrow from celebrity those things that we can adopt that we perceive will advance us as persons.

The lure of celebrity is nearly irresistable. If it were, we woulnd't have 50,000 people at once trying to get on American Idol. We wouldn't be humiliating ourselves on network 'reality' shows (a misnaming if ever there was one). Just yesterday I read about MTV's show, 'The Real World,' one of the first reality genre shows. No participant is paid, your lives are under network supervision, the producers WILL make your actions entertaining one way or another...you're even responsible for stocking your own food, for God's sake. Why choose to subject yourself to that? To get famous. Celebrity, then, hopefully, will be a currency for you to convert into a living, or even riches.

It's interesting -- have you noted the blur of entertainment (the domain of celebrity) and news? 'News' programs like Dateline NBC are prime-time fixtures, and they're certainly not what Edward Murrow would recognize. News is stylized and packaged more than it's reported. It's hard to imagine that many soon won't get their 'information' from entertainment rather than traditional news reporting.

Add on top of all this the blurs in our lives -- the fever pitch of inbound media (TV, radio, Internet, voice mail, e-mail, pagers, fax machines, the advertising on the side of the bus and in the bottom of the golf hole and above the bathroom urinal) all commanding our attention if only to sift out the unnecessary; the demands of a professional life, a successful marriage, a healthy family, a grinding commute, and maybe one day a round of golf or a day at the beach. From all this it's nearly impossible to sort out the most important at any one moment. The most successful of us, celebrities, even with their own problems, have none of the grind to contend with, and that's pretty attractive. Celebrities speak with authority, and we would like to.

That's a half-thought answer to the question, and worth exactly what you're paying for it. Have a good weekend.

genevieve - 9/2/2004 11:11:37 AM
To be brutally honest a lot of my interest tends to revolve around how grim the world is at the time. If we have had a lot of pain in our neck of the woods I tend to feel celeb news is very shallow stuff indeed and awfully light on the emotional connection.

However I saw a magnificent interview with Guy Pearce, by our own version of Michael Parkinson, an interviewer called Andrew Denton. Pearce is an Australian actor who made a couple of Hollywood films a few years back (LA Confidential) and is well known in Australia. Apparently he has a handicapped sister - when he was young the neighbouring kids threw stones at him and his sister when they went out for walks. Absolutely heart-stopping story - now that he is famous, when he takes his sister out on weekends (which he does because they are the only sibs), everyone looks at him now - and she has trouble with all the attention he gets! This is a man who thinks it is not quite right that he is acting - perhaps it is time he got a job that gives more back to society. If only more celeb stories had this kind of punch.
Elizabeth Albrycht - 9/2/2004 3:41:57 AM
Here's my theory: Celebrities exist to entertain us. In order to entertain us, or perhaps through that entertainment, they engage us on an emotional level. This entertainment/emotion is a channel into our psyche that escapes some of the ordinary cynicism so many of us have towards the world. Even if we know it is all manipulated image, we still dismiss it or are amused by it. This is unlike our reaction to politicians, as we are generally not entertained (or that isn't their primary reason for being).

Maybe people these days are truly starved for emotional connection. Maybe that is why they feel close to the celebrities that open that connection through their craft. Maybe this entertainment/emotion connection is like an addictive drug (serotonin release??).

The authors here and bloggers elsewhere talk alot about the need for emotional connection. We use words like authenticity. Maybe we should also take a chapter from celebrities and aim for entertainment as well. Some of the best bloggers already are.
genevieve - 9/1/2004 10:30:05 PM
I don't mind hearing about an actress entering what the French call 'un certain age' and facing the dearth of decent roles in films bravely. If I had time to see their films as well that would be even better.
And I am sick to death of reading about writers - the only ones that interest me now are the ones that leave it in the book where it belongs. The writer as celeb is definitely over for me. Less time in my life to take in their work, let alone their lives as well.
kate - 9/1/2004 9:54:22 PM
These three additional things keep me reading 'celebriture' (with the exception of anything about an Olsen or a Hilton):

1) It's a marketing case study: funny how people with a movie or an album about to be released somehow always have a new 'relationship', breakup, or a must-have accessory at that very same time. You know it's all calculated, but it's fun to see how the game is played.

2) Trading celeb tidbits seems as harmless a bonding tool as weather chitchat, enlivening a supermarket checkout, pre-meeting icebreaking or slow party conversation, an easy connector.

3) Most of all, I enjoy getting a peek behind the curtain at a person who has reached a degree of success in what is arguably the world's most competitive field...the in-depth Vanity Fair type of article (the only reason I wouldn't pick up that magazine in the waiting room is that I've had a subscription since I was in junior high.)

For example, this month's Reese Witherspoon cover touches on ambition, meaningful work, and the possibility of perfect satisfaction, ending with a quote I really liked: 'I'm wary of what goal I set, because then I'll have to accomplish it.'
Allison - 9/1/2004 6:40:34 PM

Good choice for the cover (says the photographer). I hope everyone will enjoy it as much as I enjoyed taking it and interacting with our, um, subject(s).

As for the fascination with celebrity, I think it goes deeper than folks wanting to feel more creative. Sure, Tom Cruise has plenty of fun making a movie and he gets to use both sides of his brain, but he also has fun spending the millions he gets for making movies. Most people wouldn't hesitate do something fun and get paid a mint for doing it.

Celebrities like Cruise also have free time to spend with their kids, to drive one of their many cars or to fly one of their planes to one of their many homes.

I think people are fascinated with celebrities because the lives of celebrities seem so far removed from what they do in their daily lives. Reading celebrity profiles might be fantasy for some people; others, however, might be looking for clues on how to acheive that level of personal freedom (stalkers and paparazzi aside).

Any psychologists out there who can explain the fascination with celebrities?
anita - 9/1/2004 4:26:10 PM

I'm with you. With rare exception, I never read celebrity profiles. Still, even Esquire finally caved in and started putting celebs on the cover -- and saw newsstand sales soar. It is mystifying. One reason I wrote that was to see if people would comment and shed some light on the fascination.
Curt Rosengren - 9/1/2004 3:15:36 PM
Oh, you tease! You're not going to tell us what it is, are you?

Re the fascination with celebrities, I find myself having less and less interest in them. I truly don't get the obsession. The theory that it's because we want to see people who at least have the appearance of pursuing their passions doesn't quite ring true. To me it seems less about feeling good seeing someone who has followed a path they love (if that were the case, the spectrum of celebrities that sell magazines would be much broader), and more about some need to deify others, making them somehow extra-special personas. Why that need for deification? I truly don't know. Count me as clueless.

Oh, and I would pick up The Atlantic over Vanity Fair, any day of the week.

I suspect I'm a bit of an oddity though.


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