An economics professor recently estimated that Tiger Woods' marital problems have had a whopping $12 billion stock market impact. This bizarre intersection of personal woes and global finance is all about branding. Woods had been the public face of a wide range of products and services. His image of focus, grace under pressure, and peerless performance resonated far beyond sports. It didn't hurt, too, that golf is the pastime of choice of the corporate set. So Woods added value, all of which drained away -- with interest -- over the past weeks.
The biggest corporate victim was consulting giant Accenture, which had made Woods the entire face of its organization. Woods' image equaled Accenture's image, so the company was forced to perform an emergency image-ectomy. And that's where baby names come in.
I've written before that naming a child after a living celebrity is risky business. The problem is that the name's cultural meaning isn't yet settled. Just as Tiger Woods "means" something different in our society than he did a year ago, the meaning of celebrity's name can shift unpredictably over time.
We already know that much about politician's names. Until Watergate, you could count on a new president being honored with a spate of little namesakes. Today, parents wait until the president is safely part of history to commit to the homage. (Don't believe the breathless media accounts of a flood of baby Baracks. Alf Landon inspired far more namesakes losing the election in 1936 than Obama did winning in 2008.) When it comes to athletes, actors and musicians, though, parents are still willing to pull the trigger. That can lead to regret when a sports star changes teams, or worse when scandal hits.
Not every name is at equal risk. As we saw with Woods and Accenture, the stakes are highest when the celebrity defines the name's image. Take a name like Beyoncé (#700 in America in 2001). It exists because of Beyoncé Knowles, and its impact rides entirely on her shoulders. In contrast, performers like Alicia Keys and Christina Aguilera hold little power over the names Alicia and Christina.
It may seem a cold calculation, weighing the the chances of disgrace for a favorite star as part of the joyous process of choosing a baby name. And certainly, some celebrities grant a lasting luster to their names -- Audrey Hepburn, for example. But just like a corporation with a sponsor, parents choosing a celebrity-infused name are putting a little bit of their future in a stranger's hands.
Some quick thoughts to usher in 2010:
The Battle for #1: Emma? Emily? Or...
2008 marked the end of Emily's 12-year reign as America's top name for girls. Both Emma and Isabella narrowly beat out the old champion.
But "beat out" may be a misleading term here. If Emily had simply stayed still at its 2007 popularity, it would have kept the title handily. What really happened is that the number of Emilys dropped by thousands, while the other names held steadier. That makes the 2009 picture murky, but my money's on a new champ: Isabella.
The Mysterious Listmaker
A new Namipedia user recently went on a spree, submitting dozens of new name pages during a three-hour name-a-thon. She was mostly completing political lists: Namipedia is now the proud repository of every name of past Prime Ministers of Italy (e.g. Ivanoe, Ferruccio) and Presidents of Mexico (Plutarco, Venustiano). But one series left me scratching my head. Can anybody spot a pattern in this list of actor/actress names?
In my top secret Baby Name Cave, I've been crunching numbers, calculating formulas, and mixing potions. At last, I emerge with the revelation all of America has been waiting for, the top baby names of the 2000s decade! And the names were...umm...Emily and Jacob, the names that ranked #1 year after year after year. Obviously.
With Jacob in particular on a decade-long run, how could it be otherwise? Yet I felt compelled to bang the gong on this subject after reading a series of news reports with names like Aiden, Emma and Madeline crowned champions of the decade.
As usual, the problem is that reporters take a company's press release about the top names of its customers at face value. In one particularly egregious example, Reuters ran a whole story reporting name stats based on a press release of a personalized gift company. If you read the company's release carefully, they never even claimed the stats were about BABY names -- just the names that their customers chose to be printed on custom CDs.
So here are the facts. Even without knowing the 2009 numbers, I can report authoritatively that Jacob and Emily were the top names of the decade. They would win the honor easily, even if zero Jacobs and Emilys were born in 2009. What's more, Emma -- the top name of 2008 -- isn't even #2 for the decade.
The key to understanding the decade-long stats is that the top of the curve has continued to drop as parents try to avoid popular names.
What Emma won in 2008 was a war of attrition. The number of Emmas born that year was down significantly from the name's peak, and would only have been enough to rank the name #4 back in 2000. Meanwhile Madison never reached the #1 spot, but hung around at #2-3 long enough in the earlier "fat" years to earn the second overall spot for the decade. Michael has been the steady #2 for boys.
It's too early to predict the name champions of the 2010s, but one forecast looks solid: whatever they are, they'll be less popular than Jacob and Emily were this decade, and an afterthought compared to the once-upon-a-time heights of John and Mary.
p.s. I'm still looking for name-locked parents to participate in a video project, pass it on!