Study: Looking Back at Celebrity Tribute Issues
Paying tribute to a recently deceased celebrity doesn’t always guarantee high levels of readership.
Paying tribute to a recently deceased celebrity doesn’t guarantee high levels of readership for magazines. However, for some, the results have been meteoric.
Brand new research from GfK MRI notes the passing of Robin Williams (29% above average), Muhammad Ali (28% above average) and Prince (25% above average) drove the highest readership averages, when compared to other issues. The research examined 112 magazine issues over the past eight years and focused on celebrities that were featured on at least three covers.
The highest level of single-issue readership average were noted for People’s Dec. 29, 2014 Robin Williams issue; Sports Illustrated’s June 13, 2016 Muhammad Ali issue; and Rolling Stone’s May 19, 2016 Prince issue. All three achieved readership levels 40% above each brand’s average. Also notable was People’s September 28, 2009 Patrick Swayze tribute, which had a readership increase of 32%.
“Commemorative issues engage with our audience in a visceral way,” a People spokesperson tells Folio:'s sister site, min. “[The] issues also serve as collectors’ specials that celebrate the lives of Hollywood legends.”
People also points out that readership and engagement goes beyond the pages of its magazine. “The most recent example was the unexpected death of Prince on April 21, 2016,” the spokesperson says. “People’s coverage was multiplatform: we provided readers with breaking news, features, and video on our website, created two dedicated Snapchat editions, as well as several Facebook Live reactions with our editors as soon as the news broke. This culminated with the cover of People’s commemorative Prince issue — our biggest newsstand seller of 2016 to date.”
Caryn Klein, VP of strategy and insights at Time Inc., did not disclose specifics, but went on to say, “The Prince and Muhammad Ali tribute special issues were some of the highest selling issues year-to-date for Time Inc.”
There isn’t an apparent formula here, however. Michael Jackson, arguably one of the most famous pop culture icons in recent history, did not increase readership for most of the 21 magazines that featured him on their covers. In fact, cumulatively those issues saw readership levels decline by 5% against their averages. Entertainment Weekly got the biggest bump from Jackson, with its July 10, 2009 split-run collectors’ issue that saw a 12% increase in readership.
Similarly poor results were also seen with Whitney Houston’s passing. Houston was featured on 10 covers, and the overall readership average for those magazines was down 1% overall. Essence netted the biggest lift, with a 17% spike in readership for its April 2012 issue.
While there is clearly no way to predict which celebrity passing will drive the highest levels of readership, the GfK MRI research does indicate that entertainment magazines are most likely to benefit from tribute issues. Still, there are exceptions to that rule, especially when the tributes feature public figures, as opposed to celebrities.
Steve Jobs’ passing in 2011 drove a 39% increase for Fortune in its November 7 issue. But the results were not so good for Rolling Stone, who saw readership fall 6% below average for its October 27, 2011 issue featuring Jobs on its cover.