RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

It's the SELL, Stupid.

Everybody needs a retirement plan, and ours is to win a Publisher Sweepstake, which we suspect is only possible if we subscribe to one or more of the national glossies. Which is why I'm at the library, in the periodical section, trying to choose some that we might tolerate on a regular basis.

I've brought my calculator. I'd like to find something informative, but the magazine business has nothing to do with information. To figure this out is to count the ads, then divide by the total pages for a percentage. Sometimes the articles and ads look the same. Ad agencies use the same colors, type styles and general layouts the readership expects. Brights for the teen-agers, muted for the geezers.

Specialty magazines, like Field and Stream, Practical Horseman, Money, or Glamour, run about 50% ad pages. But their articles also pitch merchandise you'll find advertised in the slickie elsewhere. The headline says "Product Tests," "Best Choices," or some such, and the text describes how the whatzit solved a tester's vexing problem.

And some slicks are even slicker. How do you rate a People feature on Gidget, the Taco Bell dog? Or the ubiquitous references to Wal-Mart in Reader's Digest? Or the brand names that sneak into recipes in a women's mag?

Advertisers know us, and they know what we worry about. Ads are focussed to target the insecurities of readers. So you'll find ads for cosmetics and acne products in Seventeen, beer and baldness cures in Sports Illustrated.

"So yeah, duh," I hear you saying, "Selling is what magazines are about and that's what everyone expects. So what? It's a free world and we decide whether or not to buy. What's the dif?"

The dif, Dear Reader, is that we increasingly believe that (1) All irritations are problems; (2) All problems can be solved; (3) All solutions have a brand name; (4) There are no other solutions.

Sleuthing it out, you'll quickly see that, for example, Better Homes isn't in the business of betterment. With 58% ad pages, it's in the business of selling gleaming paint, shiny china, and dazzling food. And Health isn't about health or Self about esteem. Following the advice of those guys will only max out your Titanium Card.

Ad pages actually determine the number of article pages, and cover stories make a big difference in how many ads a magazine can sell. People, with a steady 60% ad pages, is the glossy cover champ. Focussing its cameras on deified movie stars, fallen rich people, naughty sportsmen, and any related children, People comes through with visual candy.

In fact, People is an advertiser's dream. With each sweet cover, they sell the maximum ad pages for cars, mass media, cigarettes and alcohol. Everyone understands People's stories. There's little sex or violence. People's only agenda is to report the unabashed, but harmless gossip of romance, divorce and childbirth that leaves readers abuzz with moral superiority.

Other slickies have tried to work the People formula, but a recent Reader's Digest posted a measly 28% ad pages with a cover of pro-football player Chris Zorich with kids from his old Chicago neighborhood. The Mel Gibson cover did better, reaping 38% ads.

The Clintons have meant gold for the glossies. Stumbling politicians, sneaky women, new hairstyles--with the advantage that every foul detail had its distracting defense. He's a scum. She's a slut. It's about the Constitution. It's about addiction. Corruption. Testosterone. Party politics. It's not about golf.

Last year we subscribed to Time. We didn't win the Sweepstake, but Time rewarded us with a investigative series on corporate greed. Not corporate greed in their advertisers, mind you, and they picked up Cargill as a regular sponsor like the hog meisters were indebted because their name wasn't in the series.

And not greed in any of the drug companies. Pfizer was so grateful they sponsored an entire issue on January 11, 1999. "The Future of Medicine" consisted of 114 pages of medical insights and 39 pages of Pfizer ads. Did I make that clear? Pfizer was the only sponsor. The issue read like an annual report.

And there's the rub. The most troubling aspect of this fraternization is that advertisers influence what we read.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Chrysler sent a January 30, 1996 letter to publishers asking for warning "in advance of any and all editorial content that encompasses sexual, political, social issues or any editorial that might be construed as provocative or offensive."

Colgate-Palmolive, Ford, and Ameritech have all made similar ultimatums. And the glossies have fallen into line. They've changed layouts to avoid controversy in pages near advertising. That's why the front quarter and the back quarter of your favorite magazine is packed with ads and smart-alecky who's-hot-who's-not columns while articles, if any, huddle in the middle pages.

Time usually runs 84-88 pages and about 50% ads, but during the Clinton scandal they made hay. The major Zippergate players dominated the cover at least 15 weeks, in issues averaging 100 pages. The month of February kicked off with "Monica and Bill: A special Report," followed by "Ken Starr," and climaxing with the 106-page, 69% advertising "Trial by Leaks," a report so reader-catching but inoffensive that Ford and Chrysler nestled full-pagers throughout.

If you read Time's other pages--the ones between the cute stuff in front, the Clinton stuff in the middle and the soothing confessional essays in back--you learned in brief, background-deficient stories that a lot happened while we slogged through "Why She Turned," "Truth and Consequences," "It's Nobody's Business But Ours," and "A Stinking Mess." India detonated an atomic bomb. Pakistan responded with nuclear tests two weeks later. A half-dozen other conflicts we thought were over weren't.

But we were reading "The Starr Report," "The Fall of Newt," "Will they Really Do It?" and the once-interesting "Men of the Year." The world economy went into crisis. The Russian economy died and was hooked up to life support. Japan went bust. And China--well, don't get me started. Here at home, the economy responded with a skid but, the slide left Wall Street intact and only clobbered farmers.

But now political pantings are an addiction, like the O.J. thing and Diana. Time recently headlined "How the Scandal Was Good For America" about the spiritual cleansing and our new ability to forgive and to work together. Good for America? Good for the glossies.

The issue--102-pages, 70% ads--is still about Sell.


Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email:

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