The seven contenders for Time's Person of the Year who weren't German Chancellor Angela Merkel may be bummed they blew top billing, but they can still take comfort that they've dodged the cover curse, which warns that landing primo magazine real estate lauding your influence may coincide with a reversal of fortune. A perusal of the list of previous "winners" over the magazine's nearly 90-year history of issuing the designation shows the aftermath of the cover didn't always produce greatness.
Take Rudy Giuliani, whose 2001 cover praised his comforting resolve in a bleak post 9/11 landscape—a "Mayor of the World" who reunited America. It looked like the sky was the limit, but next was a failed 2008 presidential bid described as a "dizzying free fall." Looking back further, things didn't exactly turn out great for Hitler, for instance, who took 1938's Man of the Year as the dictator of Nazi Germany, correctly recognized as one of the democratic world's greatest known enemies (the magazine clarifies often that the distinction is not a popularity contest, but a designation of influence for better or worse). Though they were right about his influence—World War 2 was a mere months away—it's safe to say he didn't achieve the victory he wanted.
1961 saw John F. Kennedy take the cover spot for his newly elected promising leadership qualities, namely his "way with the people." But up next came the Bay of Pigs Invasion, escalation of Vietnam, and assassination after a mere 1,000 days as president. In 1963 Martin Luther King was singled out by Time for being the living personification of Civil Rights in America, but he too would be assassinated a few years later.
1964's winner was General William Westmoreland, commander of American troops in Vietnam. Though he was first considered popular due to his aggressive strategy and initial victories, his difficult mixture of hubris and naiveté about the enemy's guerilla warfare saw history reframe him as the general who lost the Vietnam War, a narrative he fought against until his death until 2005.
It goes on. It was nice of Time to give the "Endangered Earth" the attention she so sorely needed by naming her Planet of the Year in 1988 as climate change concerns escalated (what other planets were contenders?), but things have only gone downhill from there. An analysis of databases from the most recent Earth Summit found that it's now hotter by at least .6 of a degree, the sea is 3 inches more elevated, we're more crowded by 1.7 billion people, and the Greenland and Antarctica ice sheets are short 4.9 trillion tons of ice.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos appeared as Person of the Year in 1999, only to see the dotcom bubble burst a few short months later in March of 2000 and Amazon stock drop 86 percent by the year's end. The Nasdaq lost nearly half its value, while many startups crashed and burned, losing dough at a devastating rush of between $10 and $30 million a quarter. We're still not quite back to 2000-era bubble-level valuation.
Of course, plenty of other folks who've appeared on the list have endured evolutions yet to be categorized. There's President Barack Obama, who took home two covers, first praised as an architect of change in 2008 America, next praised as somewhat beleaguered architect of change in 2012 America. Today? His presidential legacy—whether transformative or restorative—is likely to be hotly debated for some time.
An investing principle may shed some light on this phenomenon. In 2007, researchers/professors at the University of Richmond in Virginia—Tom Arnold, John S. Earl and David H. North—issued a paper asking "Are Cover Stories Effective Contrarian Indicators?" The study looked at 549 covers over 20 years of publication from Forbes, Business Week and Fortune, categorizing the coverage as positive, negative, or neutral, then comparing it with how each cover company's shares had performed in the 500 days before or after the profile. As they expected, there were more positive stories overall, and also as expected, the positive companies' stocks had been doing well before the coverage, while the negatively portrayed companies had been doing poorly.
But after? The positions switched—the praised companies suffered, and the dissed companies improved, according to analysis at The Economist. The difference wasn't statistically significant, but that wasn't the point. "What matters is that if news is sufficiently good or bad to catapult a company onto a magazine cover, then it is already reflected in the share price," they wrote. "Or, as the academics put it, 'positive stories generally indicate the end of superior performance and negative news generally indicates the end of poor performance.' "
"What you can extrapolate [from the research] is that the extraordinary performance is capped by the magazine cover," says Arnold by phone, a professor of finance at the Robins School of Business at UVA Richmond. "You've hit your apex. So instead of staying superior, they just became average afterwards."
He was talking about stock performance, but what this translates to into Time cover speak, or any cover speak, is that by the time the media gets around to putting you on a cover, you've probably already done your best work or worst work, as the case may be, meaning there is only one way to go respectively after the fact. It happens with athletes, too.
Sports Illustrated is thought to have a cover jinx. Said to have started in 1954 after Braves third baseman Eddie Matthews got a cover and then broke his hand, various subjects have said to go on to suffer trouble, injuries or untimely accidents. There are also, of course, counterexamples—Michael Jordan was on the cover 50 times, and there are probably no superlatives left for him to collect.
The curse is even said to extend to the athletes who appear on GQ and quickly go from wins to disappointment. ESPN searched decades of GQ covers and found only one athlete who'd been on the cover to have gone on to win a Super Bowl: Troy Aikman. That piece was written in 2012, and its main concern was the future of recent cover Tim Tebow. He has since moved from the Broncos to the Jets to the Patriots and recently, the Eagles, but he still hasn't won a Super Bowl either.
Of course, it's worth noting that athletes, celebrities, politicians, and world leaders, good and bad, also have more visible, risky, volatile lives, leaving them more vulnerable to accidents, injuries, and early death. To bigger successes—the kinds that land you on covers in the first place—but also more epic failures. Which means it's probably not the cover, but the notoriety in the first place, that puts you at risk.
But such is the price of fame. Which is why of all the people Time has ever seen fit to put on the cover, the one we should probably be worried about most is us. Or rather, "You"—the winner of 2006's designation, the Internet content generator. It was supposed to be a comment on the proliferation of user-generated content and its rapid transformation of the Internet we made in our image and now know and love—full of memes, Vines, Wikis, Youtubes, and such.
But how are "we" doing now? Well, "we're" creating a staggering amount of content every single day, often for free. As much as 300 hours of footage is uploaded to Youtube per minute, for instance. Yes, thanks to us, the Internet is a one-stop shop for every weird mundane and awful thing, and anyone can be a star, but we're also competing with every other person out there.
If Arnold had any advice for "us" based on his research, it would be the same thing he tells his students at UVA. "If you actually do something in the market that gets you some extremely great return and you can figure out it's a lock? Double down and write a book about it. Once you're at your peak of your popularity, that's when you cash in, that is what making you newsworthy. After that, you're average."
Of course, only time will tell our true fate, but right now, it's not looking so good.
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