At first glance, there's nothing unusual about the January 2006 cover of Harper's Bazaar. It showcases a famous woman looking pretty, pledges to reveal the "Season's Must-Haves," and trumpets a big, meaningless number (635, the quantity of "New Looks" purportedly dished up within). To the untrained eye, the cover appears elegant but tame.
To the editors of women's magazines, however, it is a cold glass of water thrown in the face of convention. Why? Because it's green. And—as the New York Times noted last month when the issue won an American Society of Magazine Editors award for "Best Celebrity Cover" of the year—the color green "has traditionally been considered poison on the newsstand."
This belief may sound cockamamie, but it's pervasive and often firmly held, especially at women's magazines. Cindi Leive, now the editor in chief of Glamour, remembers getting into "an almost physical fight" at Self over a cover that pictured Stephanie Seymour in a dark green sweater. "I liked the cover," Leive recalled. "But my art director … not only was she screaming, she was screaming in a thick and impassioned Finnish accent and telling me that dark green was the color of death … in Scandinavian mythology, but also on the newsstand." The end result? Seymour appeared on the cover in a creamy white fisherman's sweater.
It's not just the Finns who are skeptical. When I mentioned the greenish Harper's Bazaar to a consultant who tests magazine covers for a number of publishers, he sniffed, "I would think it didn't sell that well." But that issue of Harper's did sell well—8.6 percent better than the January 2005 issue of the magazine, and 8.1 percent better than the December 2005 issue. Which is enough to make you wonder: Is the fear of green just an empty superstition?
Luckily, there are people who study these things. Obsessively. At magazines with brisk newsstand sales (Cosmopolitan, Us Weekly)—as opposed to those that rely on subscribers (Reader's Digest)—editors attack each new cover with a pile of research that a NASA scientist would envy: stats on which celebrities move copies, lists of words and topics that readers respond to, and other arcana. Since covers are studied so closely, I expected that it would be easy to find empirical evidence of green's newsstand toxicity. I was surprised, then, that when I asked the research arms of magazine publishing houses and independent consultants whether they had data showing that green suppresses newsstand sales, the answer was no. Even the consultant who scoffed at Bazaar's green cover confessed that he hadn't done much research on how the color performs, because editors don't send him many green covers to test. "They don't really use green when they're trying to sell style or fashion," he said. A quick trip to the newsstand confirmed this: The only green cover I found was the November issue of High Times.
If there's no evidence that green kills newsstand sales, how did this bogus theory take hold? Samir Husni—the chair of the journalism department at the University of Mississippi and a close follower of the magazine industry—offered one clue about the origins of what he called "this urban myth": He's heard some retailers speculate that the fluorescent bulbs in stores cast a yellow light that washes out newsstand greens and gives them a feeble, bluish cast. Lynn Staley, assistant managing editor of Newsweek, put forth a more plausible theory: "Like brown, [green] can be tricky to control on press and either one can migrate in the baby poop direction if the printer isn't careful. It's a technical consideration, but it may explain an industry-wide allergy to the color."
The Staley hypothesis has the ring of truth. As pigments go, green has always vexed mankind. The cave painters at Lascaux were situated near hefty deposits of the green minerals called terre-verte, which they could have used to give those beasts some grass to roam on—but they seem never to have discovered it. Medieval illuminators worked with tricky, unstable copper greens, which tended to bleed and taint neighboring colors—forcing frustrated monks to scrap entire pages. In 1814, chemists used arsenic to manufacture a brilliant new hue called emerald green—but it was one of the most toxic pigments ever made. In the modern era, the advent of four-color CMYK printing has made reproducing any color fairly easy. But modern greens still appear muddy from time to time. It's plausible that art directors resisted green over the years, and that resistance could have hardened into tradition.
One man who helped perpetuate the myth was Alexander Liberman, the domineering Ukraine-born painter and sculptor who served as Condé Nast's editorial director from 1962 to 1994. According to one designer who worked with him, Liberman was prone to repeating, "Green is death on the newsstand!"—and so the company's editors and art directors began to avoid the hue.
It's tempting to peg Liberman—who trained so many people over so many years—as the patient zero of the anti-green epidemic. But the answer may not be that simple. Sarah Bailey, the deputy editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, told me that "green is traditionally regarded as newsstand death, absolutely. And every newsstand seminar I've attended has said exactly that." But Bailey was trained in the U.K.—she once edited British Elle—which suggests the green ban is so universal that it can't be traced to one man alone.
The biggest mystery surrounding greenophobia isn't its origins. It's the fact that, given how much research editors have at their disposal, such a canard can persist. There are plenty of bizarre newsstand myths. (Another one? The notion that odd numbers do better than even ones. Editors believe you're more likely to buy a magazine that promises "635 New Looks" than one that promises 630.)
I think the endurance of these superstitions has a lot to do with the pressure magazine editors face. Witness Joanna Coles, the new editor of Marie Claire. She recently OK'd a black-and-white cover featuring Sarah Michelle Gellar. It reportedly tanked, and she's come under increasing scrutiny since.
It must be nice for such editors, who must turn a blank page into a blockbuster month after month, to have certain touchstones to return to and certain options that are verboten. And it must also be nice—when you're feeling especially confident—to flout convention once in a while. Bazaar's Bailey says that, for the magazine's January cover, the editors photographed actress Julianne Moore in a blue dress, as well as the notorious green one. But, she says, even though the green dress broke "every rule in the book," the shot worked. "I think in January, that image on the beach with the watercolor blue sky, it just felt like inhaling fresh sea air when you saw it on the newsstand."
Got any idea why Liberman detested green? Was there an apple-hued Vogue that flopped in the '60s? An issue of Vu that performed like merde? Send theories to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless otherwise stipulated.)