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America’s most-Googled romantic comedies, in one map

California loves Clueless, New York loves Pretty Woman.

Javier Zarracina/Vox. Data courtesy of Framebridge
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

If you want to curl up with the perfect romantic comedy this Valentine’s Day, it turns out that your idea of a perfect romantic comedy might depend on which state you live in. In celebration of Valentine’s Day, we’ve used data from Google Trends to map out the most disproportionately Googled romantic comedies in every state in America. These are the weird, idiosyncratic movies that are more likely to find a home in each state’s heart than anywhere else.

To be clear, when we say that Something’s Gotta Give (Connecticut, Colorado, and Oklahoma) and Hitch (Idaho, Utah, and Virginia) tied for first place in our informal electoral college, those wins don’t mean that they’re searched for most often in their respective states: It means that people searched for them proportionately more often in these states than in others.

So Crazy Rich Asians — the movie widely credited with kicking off our current rom-com revival — won only in Hawaii, perhaps in part because of Hawaii’s large Asian population. That win would line up the geographical congruence that is sometimes evident between state and winning movie: Sweet Home Alabama won in Alabama, Sleepless in Seattle won in Washington, and the very SoCal Clueless won in California.

But in other states, that correlation falls away. The winner in New York was the extremely LA movie Pretty Woman. (That win might be courtesy of Pretty Woman: The Musical, currently playing on Broadway.)

Nancy Meyers, the iconic rom-com director and screenwriter — and our lady of the aspirational kitchen and the perfect chunky knit white sweater — was a big winner across states. She shows up on our map four times in total: three times for Something’s Gotta Give, and another one time for It’s Complicated. Meanwhile, Nora Ephron, the other great iconic rom-com director and screenwriter, shows up twice: once for Sleepless in Seattle and once for You’ve Got Mail (Oregon). Her much-loved classic When Harry Met Sally doesn’t appear on the map at all.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

Here’s the nitty-gritty on how we built this map

Our data was compiled by the online picture-framing service Framebridge, which began collecting it because, they said, people like to frame movie posters. It’s drawn from Google Trends searches from the year spanning December 17, 2017, to December 17, 2018, for the movies that appear on Box Office Mojo’s 100 highest-grossing romantic comedies from 1978 to the present.

That means our map is limited to romantic comedies from the past few decades. It favors movies that were box office sensations rather than quieter movies that became critical hits. And Netflix’s recent rom-com entries like To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before haven’t been integrated with the rest of the list because we don’t have box office data for them.

So our data set has some inherent limitations. To find out what we can reasonably extrapolate from what’s on the page, I talked to Galen Stocking, a computational social scientist at the Pew Research Center.

Stocking was careful to note that Google search trends don’t necessarily correlate to popularity.

“All that it’s telling you is what people are searching for,” Stocking said over the phone. “It’s not necessarily telling you what people think about these things. If you’re looking at search trends for candidates, that wouldn’t tell you how many people are in favor of each candidate and how many people oppose them. It’s the same thing for gun control or taxes. You wouldn’t be able to determine whether people are in favor of these issues or where they fall in general, just that there’s a rate of interest of search frequency.”

But, he noted, it’s likely that there’s a closer link between popularity and search trends when it comes to pop culture than when it comes to politics. “People would be searching for these movies to watch them,” he explained.

It’s possible that our map reflects rom-com popularity across the country with reasonable accuracy — but there are a host of other factors that affect search trends. I asked Stocking whether tools like autocomplete might have any influence on our data. “It’s hard to measure something like that, because everyone gets unique autocomplete suggestions so you can’t control for it,” Stocking said. “I would put that in the same universe as everything else in the environment, like Netflix recommendations, or ads on TV, or talking to friends. All these other factors influence how people are searching.”

Update: An earlier version of this article suggested that the data illustrated which romantic comedy was Googled most frequently in each state, full stop. But a media analytics student at Elon University kindly reached out after publication to note that that interpretation of the data was not accurate. I talked to Kathleen Stansberry, a media analytics professor at Elon, to clarify a few things.

“Relative search frequency and overall most searched get conflated all the time,” Stansberry says. But they’re not the same thing. What Google Trends measures is percentage changes in the search term usage over time, not popularity of a search term over time.

Stansberry points to Seems Like Old Times, which won Georgia on our map, to illustrate the distinction.

Usually, she explains, not that many people are interested in searching for this movie. But the screenwriter Neil Simon died last year, and Seems Like Old Times was mentioned in some of his obituaries. That meant that a few more people than usual searched for that movie title, and because the baseline number was so small, it showed as a huge spike on Google Trends.

To put some numbers on this idea: Imagine that normally, four people search for Seems Like Old Times every day. That’s a pretty small number. When Neil Simon died, imagine that eight people searched for Seems Like Old Times that day. That’s still a pretty small number — but it’s also a 100 percent increase.

So what our map is showing is not which movies get Googled most often in each state, but instead, which movies are disproportionately more Googled in each state. In other words, it’s not showing a state’s overall most popular rom-com, but instead the weird outliers, the rare birds that are more likely to be found in one particular spot than anywhere else.

And that’s how America (sometimes) searches for rom-coms, by state. Happy Valentine’s Day.


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