Britney Economics

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, January 22, 2008; 12:00 AM

The most useful magazine journalism of the (still) new year comes to us not from the usual sources -- Newsweek, Time, etc. -- but from Portfolio, a business publication. It has enumerated the vast amounts of money Britney Spears is worth not just to herself, but to others as well -- about $110 million to $120 million annually to the struggling U.S. economy. This is what Portfolio calls the Britney Industrial Complex.

Spears' ubiquity goes without question. She gets the sort of coverage only dictators, potentates or absolute monarchs can command or even dream of. "Between January 2006 and July 2007, Britney was a cover subject of People, Us Weekly, In Touch, Life & Style, OK!, or Star a total of 175 times in just 78 weeks," Portfolio tells us. And on Yahoo, just to throw another statistic your way, she was the No. 1 search subject in six of the last seven years. Her single slip to No. 2 came in 2004, when she was bested by Paris Hilton -- a dark, dark year for us all.

Portfolio says a Las Vegas nightclub reportedly sold seats next to Spears' table for $50,000. (I'd like to see a cover story on those people!) Spears herself gets a reported $250,000 to $400,000 just to appear at an event, giving new meaning to Woody Allen's observation that "90 percent of success in life is just showing up." At Spears' prices, Woody would no doubt show up 100 percent of the time.

Portfolio's point, and mine as well, is that Spears is big business -- and ought to be viewed that way. She herself still makes oodles of money -- about $9 million a year, the magazine says -- and maybe has a personal fortune of about $125 million. In a way, though, she is worth as much to others as she is to herself, if such a thing is possible. One photo agency, X17, sold $2.5 million worth of Spears pictures in 2007, and although it did not do better with Britney than Britney did with Britney, it didn't have to pay Kevin Federline $35,000 a month in child and ex-spouse support either.

The Britney Industrial Complex is a handy tool to examine more than just Britney Spears. It also explains why Hillary Clinton's human backdrop changed from Iowa to New Hampshire. On election night in Des Moines, Clinton surrounded herself with familiar figures, some of them not so young anymore, while Barack Obama had a backdrop of youthful faces radiating pheromones. By New Hampshire, Clinton had younged-up her crowd, suggesting she was now, like Obama, an agent of change.

A major difference between young people and older ones is that the former are likely to spend their last cent on whatever attracts them. Why not? They usually don't have kids or mortgages, or live with the fear that their boss has blown the money that was in their 401(k) accounts on his mistress. That being the case, young people are beloved by marketers who will flatter them just so they can reach into their pockets and take their last penny. This, in an abridged form, is why we have come to see young people as somehow inherently wise and able to peek into the future. Marketers have lied to them in the same way that a man on the make tells a woman that she is -- cross his heart and hope to die -- the loveliest of all things. In America, the consumer is never wrong.

Portfolio's Britney Industrial Complex illustrates the economy's need for celebrities. Vast amounts of money can be made by manufacturing ones who appeal particularly to the young. Spears was once one of those, although at age 26 she has leaped that demographic boundary. Still, the breadth of her drawing power cannot be fully estimated. Portfolio's concoction does not, for instance, measure her worth to the morning television shows -- "Today," etc. -- which on any given day are mere adjuncts to the fan magazines. Nor can it measure what she is worth to us as a topic of common interest for our communal water-cooler moments. Even this column has, in a sense, exploited her.

It is one thing to do an economic analysis of Britney Spears and still another not to see her as a sad, updated version of the lumpy prizefighter from more than one black-and-white movie. She's taken too many punches and soon those who have attached themselves for the ride will drop off. As Portfolio shows, the Britney Industrial Complex represents an economic truth -- as good a reason as any for economics to be called the dismal science.

Richard Cohen's e-mail address is

© 2008 The Washington Post Company