In an age of birth chart gifts at baby showers, a non-trivial portion of the population checks Costar as much as the weather application, and Cosmopolitan dedicates nine full pages of its magazine to the zodiac. When I was looking to fill a room, one potential subletter only asked one question of me: What are your big three? Because horoscopes occupy so much attention, marketers seize opportunities to align astrology with inventory.
Amazon Prime’s Insider newsletter sends monthly shopping horoscopes. A Zillow email’s subject line once read “5 homes a Scorpio would love,” and featured a moody Victorian with a “porch to process feelings.” Last month, Subaru assigned many of their car models to each astrological sign. HBO Max introduced a quiz promising “cosmic streaming and personalized watchlist curated by the stars.” ThreadUP came out with “Top Brands for Every Sign” and Venmo partnered with astrology app Sanctuary to release “The signs as the Venmo Credit Card.” Last week, Philly Cream Cheese released “The signs as Philly products,” assigning various cream cheese to star signs. I, a Sagittarius, am French onion cream cheese dip.
Buying overpriced athleisure is, apparently, about pursuing cosmic wellness. Outdoor Voices assigns a Zodiac sign to its products, describing its “Doing Things Bra” as “Sagittarius/Capricorn cusp (Ready for anything / The GOAT).”
Brands have calculated (with about as much scientific rigor as a Buzzfeed quiz) what each sign should buy. Spending, according to the brands, is written in the stars. Interestingly, the stars always seem to want us to spend. What planet should we blame for lame Brand Twitter?
Sometimes the stars expect a lot from us, like joining the military. If a significant overlap exists between military prospects and zodiac enthusiasts, the army is targeting it. In June, the official GoArmy Instagram page posted a video captioned “Wondering what your Zodiac sign says about the kind of Soldier you could be in the Army?” Many of the comments were simply “no.” Others said “hello fellow youth vibes” and “my zodiac sign says I don’t support imperial wars for oil.” I clicked on a slide assigning Capricorn to human intelligence collectors and read about how the last earth sign can go “to great lengths to successfully analyze and understand our enemies.” Intense Army interrogation — total Capricorn behavior! The unconventional military marketing strategy suggests that Zodiac-themed drinks, once the hallmark of grungy nightclubs in Bushwick, now populate chalkboards at residential Starbucks.
On social media, everyone can be an astrologer. “Gemini season is having 37 tabs open but in real life” tweeted @venuspriestess. User @reniadeb introduced the world to pastrology, which is pasta shapes as horoscopes, and astrology meme accounts make horoscopes short enough to be shareable and punchy enough to make us laugh. Julie Beck wrote for The Atlantic about how the signs can be “literally anything: cat breeds, Oscar Wilde quotes, Stranger Things characters, types of french fries” I’ve been a longtime follower of Not All Geminis, whose recent posts have included “The signs as TikTok comments” along with a smattering of relatable memes with varying levels of astrology tie-in. While they have been in print for some time now, The Michigan Daily has published horoscopes online since May, and analytics indicate that people are interested in reading them.
Astrology is everywhere. How did we get here?
Stars: they’re just like us!
The past several years have seen a renewed cultural acceptance of the zodiac, perhaps because of the decline of organized religion or the rise of political precariousness. Astrology-speak has penetrated the vernacular. She’s such a Leo! Gemini szn! That was Aries behavior! Even Nickelodeon’s Twitter ushers in #LeoSzn. But the zodiac has a long and storied history.
A number of ancient cultures believed before the advent of modern science, celestial movements informed earthly minutiae. But astrology’s recent comeback occurred in the past century. The first newspaper astrology column was commissioned in 1930 for the British tabloid the Sunday Express for the birth of Princess Margaret. With an assistant standing in as a makeshift astrologer (the main astrologer was out of office), the newspaper horoscopes were equal parts fluffy and flashy. “What the Stars Foretell for the New Princess” was a smash hit, and newspaper astrology was born.
Over the pond, horoscopes gained traction too. American astrologer Evangeline Adams began reading, telling, narrating and broadcasting radio horoscopes in addition to her private consultations with high-profile figures like JP Morgan and Charlie Chaplin. The New York Post began running horoscope columns in the 1930s, and as a century of seismic technological advancements occurred, pre-Copernican dabblings captivated America.
Today, the zodiac has reached broad cultural acceptance that seems reminiscent of the 1970s, when Nancy Reagan’s personal astrologer was consulted before major White House decisions. As Linda Rodriguez McRobble wrote in Smithsonian magazine, “According to a 2009 Harris poll, 26 percent of Americans believe in astrology; that’s more people than believe in witches (23 percent), but less than believe in UFOs (32 percent), Creationism (40 percent) and ghosts (42 percent).”
Western astrology may be at odds with Newtonian physics and rationalism, but it has still stolen the moment, and brands want to catch some of its spotlight. What was once a practice reserved for little-known mystics is now common small talk among well-to-do urbanites, the same ones who call for politicians to follow the science.
The science, the stars
Astrology has also gained popularity on campus, even among students who consider themselves rational. The tension between science and astrology has always perplexed me. Call me a cynic, call me a skeptic, but I’ve never been able to suspend my doubt. Admittedly, I’ve been into Myers-Briggs (I’m an ENTP), Enneagram (seven all the way), and sorting houses (Ravenclaw), which don’t hold much scientific rigor. Astrology just seems a smidge too far-fetched for me to entertain. If it’s completely made up, why bother? I asked an expert in cosmology if astrology holds a kernel of truth.
University of Michigan astrophysicist Fred Adams took a break from studying star formation to confirm what I assumed all along: astrology is horse shit.
“In my experience, absolutely no one in astronomy takes the subject of ‘astrology’ seriously. In fact, most ‘real’ astronomers have outright disdain for the subject (perhaps even more than you would expect),” Adams wrote in an email.
He went on: “I do know one professional astronomer who has a sister who is an astrologer. Their parents are very confused.”
U-M chemistry professor Brian Coppola struck astrology down unequivocally.
“It’s difficult to have serious thoughts about something as nonsensical as astrology,” Coppola explained. “Giving it actual serious consideration also gives it an undeserved and unearned platform. Even calling it a pseudoscience gives it too much status. I cannot honestly say I have known anyone who takes astrology with even a mote of credence.”
Not even a mote! The Barnum effect, the phenomenon in which people believe generic personality descriptions are specifically made for them, famously illustrates the way vaguely personal statements and pithy generalizations can feel eerily intimate. When scientifically tested, the zodiac fails over and over. A 1990 study found that astrologers were no better at matching star charts than a non-astrologer control subject or random chance.
Another knock to astrology is its self-fulfilling nature. Would a Leo be such a Leo if they didn’t know they were a Leo? If a tree fell in the forest and no one heard it, would it even make a sound? One ponders.
But not every astrology enthusiast cares. Some students feel no need to rationalize their astrology appetite. In science classes, zodiac stickers pepper laptops and students check Costar during lulls in lectures. As professors finish lessons on the chirality of methylphenidate, I overhear zipping backpacks and chatting with friends. “I’m done going on dates with Scorpios. They’re too manipulative! You should see his birth chart.” Everyone seems to know when mercury is in retrograde, somehow.
At a dinner recently, my friends discussed their birth charts in great length, and one friend said she purposely scheduled an important interview on an astrologically auspicious day. Another said she’d started her astrological journey by dipping her toe in the water, checking an app once a day, and pretty soon she found herself immersed in it. They asked for my new boyfriend’s sign, and when I said “Aries” they said that it “totally made sense.” Their attitude toward scientific reason seamlessly flipped when they then went on to chide anti-maskers and mourn the politicization of science.
A half-serious belief in astrology seems to be harmless enough entertainment even though it has no basis in science. Then again, denial of anthropomorphic climate change, a common belief of flat-earthers, also seems harmless enough entertainment with no basis in science, yet it has turned out to be a threat to humanity. Astrology isn’t actively harming anyone in the way that vaccine refusal, climate denial, and antiscience campaigns do, but it does allow unscientific thought to creep into culture.
The stars down to earth
There are varying appetites for astrology. There are also varying levels of seriousness to which you can approach it. Zodiac-curious people can view their horoscopes for fun, not for facts, and they can gain value from it even if they don’t believe in it.
Information junior Ashley Anderson enjoys astrology but views it more as entertainment than prophecy.
“I think it’s really fun to learn about the zodiac, but I don’t base major life decisions off of it,” Anderson said. “I know that it’s vague enough to match almost anyone, but I keep coming back because some of it is just really accurate, which is fun.”
LSA junior Samantha Dell’Imperio told me that she believes in astrology but only to a certain extent.
“I’m a Biology major. I still like to learn about it and other new age spirituality not because I think they’re telling me absolute truths about the world but because they help me learn about myself… astrology forces you to look inward,” Dell’Imperio said. “For example, say you’re a Leo and you read that your sign is known to be loud and exuberant. You can reflect on that. In what ways is this true? In what ways is this not true? It brings about personal reflection and self-improvement in a fun way.”
Perhaps astrology has arisen because it gives, even if for a brief moment, the peace of mind that comes from believing the human condition is known and quantifiable. It gives its audience a precise balance of control and predestination: the cold comfort that life is not random, but the empowerment to change our future. It can’t hurt, and it might help. Many professional astrologers’ jobs look more like life coaching than anything else, and astrology can be a tool to give criticism in a less offensive way. “You should switch careers because Cancers aren’t a good fit for marketing analytics” might not hit with the same gravity as saying, “you should switch careers because you’re bad at yours.”
Sometimes, even an unscientific prediction feels better than nothing at all. As much as I rolled my eyes at the faux-horoscope telling me to buy French onion whipped cream cheese dip, I eyed it at the grocery store for a while and threw it into my cart. It ended up being great. I guess it was meant to be, or, dare I say, written in the stars.
Statement Correspondent Annie Rauwerda can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org