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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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