An Experiment in Newsstand Magazine Sales

You see her every month, looking out at you from newsstands and in supermarket checkout lines: the Cosmo girl—trademark of Cosmopolitan Magazine. Like all cover girls, she's young and attractive, but for many years, the Cosmo girl had one unique, distinguishing feature: she was vacant. Month after month, it was always the same: the parted lips, the glassy eyes, the slack expression. Nice house—nobody home.

The function of a magazine cover is to sell magazines; in particular, to sell magazines at the newsstand (subscriptions have already been bought and paid for). The more interesting and attractive the editors can make the cover, the more magazines they can sell. For whatever reason, the editors of Cosmopolitan believed that putting a vacant model on the cover of their magazine was the best way to sell it.

Sometime in 1995, it seemed to me that the Cosmo girl woke up a bit. Not entirely, mind you. In fact, it was quite subtle. But the gaze seemed a little less fixed; the expression a little less slack. And the change persisted from month to month.

Then, in the summer of 1996, Cosmopolitan decided to perform a controlled experiment. They ran three dramatically different covers over 3 consecutive months.

Apparently, sales were highest the third month, because the Cosmo girl has been awake ever since.


sell magazines
For an inside account of this business, see Tony Rothman, A Physicist On Madison Avenue, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1991
Thinking up plausible reasons is left as an exercise for the reader. Whatever it was, it was probably a good reason: there's a lot of money at stake in these matters.
My wife holds that there was no change at all.
This is conjecture on my part, but the evidence seems compelling.
I don't recall the exact dates, or the actual order that the covers ran.

Steven W. McDougall / resume / / 29 October 1997