I've spent a lot of time considering Lindsay Lohan over the past decade. When I began my career as a gossip columnist she was a sweet freckled little thing whose biggest drama was battling Hilary Duff for the love of Aaron Carter.
Since those halcyon days various editors have asked me to pre-write obituaries for the consistently downward spiraling Ms. Lohan, just in case she finally went onto that great nightclub in the sky while I was on vacation or taking a nap. It is always good to be prepared. But five years later Lindsay is the hot mess that keeps on messing and not, I argue in my upcoming book Celebrity Inc., to her brand's best advantage. At this point yet another glimpse at her prematurely aging breasts paying homage to Marilyn Monroe will not reinvigorate Lindsay's sagging brand and career. The only thing that will save brand Lohan from total Kristy McNichol-dom is if she truly channels Monroe and actually leaves us for good.
Brand consistency is the hallmark of a successful product. When brands act erratically, consumers become confused and wary. By 2011, Lindsay Lohan had become an untenable brand. She wasn't unbankable or uninsurable; she was inconsistent and that is what caused her value to plummet.
It is an understatement to say that 2010 was a terrible, no-good, very bad year for Lindsay Lohan. She was erased from promotional materials accompanying the Nintendo DS video game of Mean Girls, the movie that just a few years earlier had solidified her stardom. Why? Marketers were afraid moms would see Lohan's face and pass. She was fired in pre-production from the biopic of porn star Linda Lovelace, by the one director still willing to take a chance on her. On top of these relatively minor indignities, Lohan was jailed, rehabbed, jailed, then rehabbed once again.
In just six years, Lohan had gone from being an asset on a project to being a liability. The press has always claimed her sloppy and seemingly drug-addled behavior makes her unbankable and uninsurable. Neither of those claims is accurate. The dirty secret of Hollywood brand management is that no one is unbankable or uninsurable; there is always money and there are always projects for a celebrity brand that is likable and consistent. Lohan had become unlikable and inconsistent. That's why no one wanted to work with her.
The story of Lohan's rise and fall is a cautionary tale for a generation of young starlets about bad decisions and poor crisis management. As Lohan moved from one side of the balance sheet to the other, from Cash Cow to train wreck, she destroyed hundreds of millions of dollars in potential brand value. She didn't follow the bad-girl narrative, a good-girl narrative, or an uplifting redemption narrative. She couldn't even stick to a lesbian narrative for the better part of a year.
Q scores help to determine an actor and actresses likability so that studios know whether consumers will see a project. One of the reasons Lohan had difficulty getting work after 2007, and why in 2010 she was dropped from the Lovelace biopic, is that her Q scores were some of the worst that the overseer of the metric, Steve Levitt of Marketing Evaluations, has seen over his entire forty-year career.
In 2004, Lohan had a brand awareness of only 20 percent. Her positive Q was a 19 and her negative was a 20.
By 2005, when her excessive partying and un-Disneylike behavior were being serialized in entertainment magazines, Lohan's brand awareness shot up to 53 percent and with it her negative Q, up to a 33. Her positive Q, meanwhile, dropped to 13. By 2006, her brand awareness was 72 percent-almost three out of four people recognized her face and her name. But her positive Q was only a 13, while her negative was a 37. "That's just a terrible relationship. You had three times as many people feeling negative about her as you did feeling positive," Levitt told me.
With each of Lohan's inconsistent brand decisions, the gap between her positive and negative Q scores widened. After her arrests and subsequent rehabilitations, Lohan's Q again fell in 2007. With 74 percent brand awareness, she had a positive rating of 11 and a negative rating of 43. Her failed relationship with Samantha Ronson, as well as her nude photo-shoot in New York magazine, increased her awareness score to 80 percent in 2008, while her positive rating remained an 11. Her negative rating, however, shot up to a 52. By any objective standard of accounting,Lohan was getting more famous and more unlikable. By 2010, 84 percent of those polled were familiar with Lohan. And yet her positive rating reached a new low of 9, her negative rating remaining at 52. More than five times as many people disliked Lohan as liked her.
"Michael Jackson had Qs in that range for a long time," Levitt explained to me. Almost as an afterthought he added, "His stats only went up after he died."
Today, her brand value, like Michael Jackson's, has nowhere to go but up in the afterlife. America loves a train wreck, until the moment they don't anymore. But what America loves more than a comeback is a martyr-someone who literally loses everything, including their life, because of the excesses inherent in a system that was meant to protect and nurture her.
"Once a celebrity passes away, the public is more apt to focus on their talents and the good in their life than the bad," Levitt explained. Elvis Presley's positive Q score was at 25 before he died and in 2009 reached 34. Johnny Cash's positive Q rose from 19 to 35 following his death.
The death bump happened for Michael Jackson as well. In February 2006, Michael Jackson's positive Q score was a 9 and his negative was a 67. According to Levitt, that was a historical low within the entire celebrity population. But by November 2009, five months after his death, Jackson's positive Q had skyrocketed to a 34 and his negative Q had dropped to a 27. It was an unprecedented turnaround, played to the sound of dinging cash registers. With likability comes marketability.
Executives within the dead celebrity business refer to the high-net-worth deceased as "delebs," and today these executives preside over an industry that is valued at more than $800 million a year and growing. The attraction of this segment of the celebrity market is obvious: The dead are the easiest clients to manage. Not only do they not meddle in their business affairs, they won't get caught with their pants down, drunk-driving, or making a racist remark to TMZ. And in an industry where vast sums are made in merchandise licensing and symbiotic partnerships, dead celebrities have just as much earning power as the living and sometimes more.
An estate actively working to maximize merchandising opportunities will derive the second-largest share of its revenues from licensing. Lindsay Lohan's image was yanked from the Mean Girls video game because mothers would have been unlikely to buy their daughters something that emulated Lohan as a train wreck, but carefully cultivating the Lohan post-mortem brand to highlight the nostalgia of The Parent Trap, Freaky Friday and Mean Girls and discount the drugs, rehabs and faux Sapphic behavior would allow Lohan's legacy to be amply more lucrative.