Early in the 1996 meta-horror movie “Scream,” a group of teens is trying to guess who murdered Drew Barrymore’s character. A nerdy cinephile named Randy, played by Jamie Kennedy, quipped that being the killer “would certainly improve your high school Q.”
“Your Q had to do with your visibility, your likability and your invite-ability into people’s homes,” Kennedy said recently, reflecting on Randy’s wisecrack. “Your Q was your hangability, if you will.”
Everyone in the public had — and still has — a Q Score, except for politicians, religious leaders and royalty. Cartoon characters had Q Scores. Brands had Q Scores. Deep Blue, that computer that beat chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov in 1997, rocked a pretty solid Q. So did Bruce Wayne. Even the dead have Q Scores. Characters, sports figures, local TV news anchors: They all have a Q, and that Q Score was used by advertising agencies, TV studios, Hollywood execs, marketing companies and consultants to put the most-liked people/things/characters in front of eager American audiences and consumers.
And everyone knew what it was. Back then, the Q Score reigned supreme. One could say the Q Score itself had a pretty good Q Score.
But today’s fractured media landscape, increasingly ruled by social media influencers and niche interests, has threatened to turn the Q Score into an artifact. “It’s very different now,” Kennedy said, “since people are becoming famous off of TikTok and so many different things. It’s totally different.”
Different, sure, but dead? Not quite yet.
Invented in the early 1960s by Jack Landis for the company Marketing Evaluations, the Q Score stood out by measuring not only how many people were familiar with a show/celebrity/product/etc., but also how they felt about it. They “evolved into the measurement of personality likability, the whole trail of how well-liked our movie stars, TV stars, chefs, musical performers are,” said Henry Schafer, the company’s executive vice president of 33 years. “Eventually every category of personality started to get measured.”
To come by Q Scores, the folks at Marketing Evaluations originally surveyed American households via mail and telephone — checking in annually — but now it’s measured twice a year. The score for every celebrity is calculated from surveys filled out by 1,800 respondents who are at least 6 years old. (Yes, 6.) They rate the celebrities on a trademarked (thus, not shared with a journalist) five-point rating scale. “We found socially and psychologically, even before social media, if anything drastic happens to a celebrity or a TV show, it takes a couple of months before a behavior change happens. Attitudes take a while to develop,” Schafer said. “That’s why we ended up doing it every six months instead of every month. You’d be going crazy because the data would be jumping around too much.”
Although the Q Score may no longer be the casual cultural colloquialism it was once, it still remains vital enough for advertising companies and movie studios — among others — to purchase the data. The almighty Q helps determine who sells you toothpaste, who dons the next cape and mask, who reads the nightly news, whom you’ll see roughly 100 billion times during breaks in the weekend’s Saints-Falcons game.
A recent list of Top 10 high and low celebrity Q Scores shared with The Washington Post plays out pretty much as one might expect: Famous men with high Q’s include Morgan Freeman, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Ryan Reynolds. Sandra Bullock is No. 1 among female celebs, with Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Michelle Obama also on the list.
Jerry Springer tops the list of men with negative Q Scores, followed by Machine Gun Kelly, Anthony S. Fauci, Chris Brown and Elon Musk. Three members of the Kardashian clan are near the top of the negative scores for women, while the No. 1 negative spot, given recent events, is Amber Heard. (Meanwhile, Johnny Depp, who has always been up there, retains a No. 8 on the most positive scores for men. Make of that what you will.)
In 2022, it may not matter to the celebrities themselves, but there was a time when it probably would have.
“Q Scores were really important, because that’s how people got cast in things. That’s how networks measured the popularity of an anchor person,” said Diane English, creator of the CBS sitcom “Murphy Brown,” which followed the lives of anchors and producers of a network TV newsmagazine. Years before “Scream” made a Q Score joke, Brown and her merry band of newscasters regularly contended with them. “We incorporated them into our show, because we thought it would be fun. People really paid a lot of attention to Q Scores. Sometimes people looked at them on a daily basis.”
“Doing a show about a show, it was just good comedy fodder,” English added. In one episode, Brown gets a copy of the current ratings and unsuccessfully tries using them to sabotage Miller Redfield, a boneheaded colleague with a low Q.
Alan Weiss watched a similar plot play out in real life when he was a producer at New York City’s ABC affiliate, WABC. It was sometime around 1980. One day, as Weiss tells it, a reporter sauntered into the newsroom to find a piece of paper on the desk of the news director’s secretary “listing all the on-air talent, the reporters, the anchors, weather, sports, everybody who’s on air — and their salaries.” Following his journalistic (err, gossipy?) instincts, he made a copy and pinned it to the newsroom bulletin board.
As tale of the salary list rippled through the newsroom, anger spread, because some of the “heavy hitters … were being paid less, dramatically less than some of the newbie reporters,” ones with large on-screen personalities, Weiss said. The reason, they all figured, came down to Q Scores.
The late newspaperman turned TV personality Milton Lewis, whom Weiss calls “a reporter’s reporter, a bulldog with stories,” felt he was underpaid and told Weiss that he planned to change his on-air name to “Pango Pango Lewis” to stand out and perhaps increase his Q — and maybe his salary to boot. Was he kidding? Maybe, but “he was really upset, he was really angry.” Soon thereafter, he stopped reporting his stories in the old, straight Walter Cronkite fashion and instead started acting outlandish on camera, at one point hopping in a pothole while reporting on the state of the city’s streets. He hoped by “overshticking” that he might embarrass management into supporting more serious news.
“The problem was that the management loved it. The audience loved it,” said Weiss, who went on to found an Emmy-winning video production company aptly named Alan Weiss Productions. “And from that day on, he was still a great reporter on the stories that required it, but also we would go to him for shtick.”
Although the story has the ring of newsroom legend, it’s not nearly as outlandish as it might seem. Q Scores helped dictate not only which anchors sat at the desk but also the format of the news. Having two co-anchors, for example, could lead to greater anchor appeal and thus became the norm, said Craig Allen, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Usually, things didn’t work the Milt Lewis way. Studios and networks would hire consultants and talent coaches to help, basically, choreograph the news. And over time, what became clear was the audience didn’t want a proliferation of Cronkite-style, “single male newscasters who had stentorian voices, were very serious and presented the news like tomorrow there’s going to be World War III,” Allen said. Instead, “they wanted warm, friendly anchors, like the person next door. And that quickly caught on.”
One shockingly simple but shockingly important skill for an anchor, as it turned out, was “the ability to effectively smile. Something that simple was difficult to teach, difficult to convey, but this was electrifying to viewers when it first occurred,” Allen said. “And the ones that could simply smile, their Q Scores would go up 10, 15 points.”
As with everything else, today’s Q Scores must contend with social media, which laid waste to the monoculture and created a new type of celebrity.
Q Scores were “reasonably helpful back in the 1990s when I was the editor of People,” said author and former magazine editor Landon Jones. “It would come up in story meetings when we were trying to decide whether to do a cover on someone. We would say, ‘Do we want to do so-and-so?’ And we would check the Q Scores.” But even then, the scores served as something more of a “tiebreaker.” Jones and his team always looked for a bit more than simple likability in the celebs who landed on their covers, some difficult-to-describe quality, something almost ephemeral. “We had our own idea of what the X factor was,” he said, “and it wasn’t a Q. It was an X.”
More recently, from 2019 to 2022, when Dan Wakeford served as People’s editor in chief, Q Scores were even less important. “They’ve become less and less relevant, because there’s not one cultural zeitgeist anymore,” he said. “There are thousands. Everything is niche. Consumers don’t consume entertainment in the same way as they used to, so broad-based scores of fame aren’t really useful.”
“There’s only a handful names of people that you only know one name of, and they’re super mega stars,” he added. “And they’re really the same people who were there two decades ago: Tom, Beyoncé, Meryl, Madonna, Bruce, Oprah, Brad, Angelina.” (To wit, take the recent example of the Try Guys scandal, in which a social media influencer named Ned Fulmer, who in part managed to earn money making videos about how much he loved his wife, had an affair that was made public. The Try Guys, a popular creative collective of former BuzzFeed employees, subsequently split with Fulmer. Half of one’s Twitter feed might be people naively asking, “What is a Try Guy?” The other half is completely clued in and knows which of the four Try Guys is which.)
So what’s the Q Score’s equivalent in 2022? Many, such as Kennedy and English, suggest it’s seen in the number of followers a celebrity has on social media.
“The nature of celebrity has changed over the years, because it’s not necessarily whether you’re likable or not, but how aware people are of you and how interested people are in you, whether they’re interested in hating you or liking you or are just fascinated by you,” English said. “Sometimes people love to hate somebody. There are people who like to follow somebody on social media because they’re fascinated by their lifestyle. They may not approve of it, but it’s like watching roadkill in a way. It’s a car accident. You just can’t look away.”
Wakeford agreed: “Celebrity’s been turned on its head by the internet. You used to commit to spending money on a magazine or time watching a TV show, and you would be kind of proud of your choices. Now, there’s more of a guilty pleasure related to the internet. What I am looking at behind closed doors on my phone that nobody knows about leads to a different type of engagement. You have reality stars that you wouldn’t buy a car they advertised or buy a magazine with them on the cover, but you’d spend two minutes reading an article about them. You have personalities who are incredibly engaging, but you don’t necessarily like them in the same way you would with someone who had a high old-fashioned Q Score.”
And that’s where things get a bit tricky.
“The amount of followers doesn’t necessarily mean likability,” Schafer said. “You could be following a celebrity for whatever reasons, based on things happening in their professional career, personal lives. You’re just interested in following them. You don’t necessarily like them, but social media platforms created this whole voyeuristic approach to how celebrities are exposed to the average consumer now.”
Case in point: the Kardashians. The ultra-famous family boasts unbelievable social media numbers. On Instagram alone, Khloé has 276 million followers, Kourtney has 201 million and Kendall Jenner has 259 million, as of Oct. 9. Yet they currently have the second, third and fourth most negative Q Scores among women.
“When advertisers or PR firms or marketing agents want to use celebrities like that, they just have to be well-aware that they’re matching that type of polarizing personality with a brand in the right way,” Schafer said. That’s why if you see a Kardashian promoting a product, it’s probably from a company she owns. Same with, perhaps surprisingly, Martha Stewart. Her brands might be beloved, but she’s deeply polarizing. “You’re not going to see her as a spokesperson for other brands besides her own. And that could be a mistake, because there’s such a difference in the perceptions between her and her brands.”
Although it’s true that Q Scores have fallen somewhat out of favor, at least to the general culture, they’re having something of a moment in 2022, thanks to a pair of high-profile celebrity news events. Will Smith plummeted from his perch in the Top 10 highest Q Scores after he slapped Chris Rock at the Academy Awards for poking fun at Jada Pinkett Smith, Smith’s wife. She neither invited nor condoned the evening’s theatrics, but she nevertheless dropped to the seventh most negative Q Score among women with a 50 percent or higher familiarity among audiences.
Right or wrong, old-fashioned or not, partly true or entirely true — if the culture has a pulse, the Q Score can still detect it.