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The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media spacer The Vacuum - Issue 14 - Media
In Defence of the Glossy
by Teena Coffey
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This is no hatchet job. For searing exposés of the world of glossy magazines see authors better equipped with sardonic phrases and rafts of statistics. This is a labour of love; an attempt to show there's more to the phenomenon of women's magazines than a lot of very shiny paper.
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So, glossy magazines: friend or foe? Peddler of the unattainable a perfect figure, a luxurious home, a bigger, better orgasm or force for good informing, investigating, campaigning? Stop laughing. The glossy has long been cited as co-respondent in most of society's troubles, from uncontrolled debt to broken marriages.
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I don't actually want to deny any of this. I'm no expert, so the information with which to make an eloquently crushing reply isn't at my fingertips. What I want to do is show that for every airbrushed model (and they're all airbrushed), there's a real person telling a story that will reach out and may even move someone to positive action.
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Deluded? Maybe. My experience is limited to the few magazines I've worked for. But let's just take one example, Good Housekeeping. It has a strong brand identity. But even in these 'brand is everything' times, it's not possible to sell a name without a product. And how good your product has to be depends on who you want to sell it to. If you want to sell toys to small children with short attention spans, they don't have to be of a particularly high-quality; you just have to hope they don't break before little Johnny gets bored. But if you want to market your product to young, independent women, the magazine's overall message must be young and independent. Otherwise it won't hit the mark.
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The same applies to Good Housekeeping. It spends a certain amount of time selling youth to women of a certain age (actually her mid-to-late forties), and while its models aren't usually stick thin, they're certainly younger than the average reader. But this average reader is also well-educated, well-informed and resides in a socio-economic bracket most would call comfortable. So while she can probably be sold anti-ageing creams and expensive handbags, she can't be sold a bad magazine.
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Good Housekeeping is special. It's been publishing for decades, so it's a piece of social history all by itself. The magazine's initial aim was to help women run their homes. Not, I agree, a purpose that sits well with modern feminism, although I'd argue that any kind of empowerment is good, and there's nothing wrong with giving someone the ability to make informed consumer choices. And GH's politics has never really been of the party political variety; it's never been about radical feminism. It's a less cut-throat politics, less about power and more about getting things done. What, after all, do you get from radical feminism if you happen to love looking after your family but wish your boss didn't spend his days belittling you?
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Alongside female frippery such as the latest lipstick and woman's 'proper place' baking cakes (using the latest oven as tested by the magazine), GH featured articles on everything from careers to legal rights. Women's stories poured in, entertaining, comforting and angering those who read them. The breadth of readers' experience has always been spectacular. It's not surprising that almost two million women are interested in food, fashion and homes, and yet may disagree vastly on any other subject. What's interesting is that all these women can read the same magazine and find some common ground.
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This diversity is the key to the GH's success. It means it can tackle any subject if it can find interesting women to write about, or commission interesting women to write about it. In the last few years alone, GH has featured articles on transexualism, rape (male and female), racism, mental health policy, equal pay, the aftermath of terrorism, women in war, the representation of ethnic minorities in the media, alcoholism and the NHS crisis.
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Don't newspapers do this sort of thing so much better? It really depends on what you want done. It's true that broadsheets are rarely accused of the kind of frivolity regularly ascribed to anything that dares to package itself attractively. But then no one reads a newspaper in the same way as they do a magazine.
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Newspapers primarily inform. That's why you get the bare bones of a news story in the first paragraph. It's also why news stories occasionally end abruptly. If the piece was too long in the first place, somebody lopped a chunk off the bottom and stuck a full stop at the end. After all, you already have the information you need.
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Magazines primarily entertain. In the civilised world of monthly magazines, articles do not end abruptly unless something went horribly wrong. The end of a glossy feature is lovingly shaped into a conclusion that will send exactly the right message to the reader. It is as important to the article as the first sentence is to the tabloid journalist.
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Newspapers look different, feel different, smell different. They have a temporary aura that tells you they somehow know they'll be discarded tomorrow. Magazines' glossy self-assurance, on the other hand, speaks of a longer shelf-life. They are to be lingered over at leisure, sometimes flicking, sometimes browsing. They are more intimate and the stories they tell have to be more intimate, too.
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The Issue isn't quite so black and white, of course. People linger over the weekend papers for days and buy magazines for a two-hour train trip. But it explains to some extent the personal nature of articles in women's magazines, the preference for the anecdotal over the empirical.
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But can such a product deliver any benefit? GH's aim so many years ago, to help and inform women, still stands. Health coverage is just one example and, helpfully, it's one that applies to many glossies. GH focuses on the illnesses that are likely to affect its readers and on those that scare them most. Access to the latest research on heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, cancer and Alzheimer's is right there on your nearest news stand. Newspapers are handicapped by waiting for something to happen, preferably a good set of really scary statistics. There has to be a newsworthy 'hook'. Good Housekeeping and co don't need that. If they want to warn people about the dangers of high cholesterol, they can. New information helps, of course. But so does a fresh design, a fresh angle, a different writer.
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Magazines devote articles to both sides of the complementary medicine debate, the politics of healthcare and to more obscure, difficult-to-diagnose ailments. It all serves a purpose. Print is a reasonably, if not completely reliable source unlike many of the websites you could use to check out that headache. Plus it's a free method of disseminating information for cash-strapped charities. PR in the form of a magazine article is highly prized. Advertising, on the other hand, is expensive. A single page in Good Housekeeping costs around £18,000, depending on where in the magazine you want it to appear.
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Ah, the money angle. Just when I'd made a case for glossies as noble champions of women. What hurts the editorial staff of most publications is the intrusion into the creative process of money in the form of advertising revenue. The price you pay for your magazine doesn't keep it in much more than paper and ink. And companies who advertise like to ensure positive coverage. On low-circulation magazines, this can involve leaning on the editor for a glowing editorial recommendation. On stronger titles such as GH, it's more a case of keeping quiet about the bad and shouting about the good.
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Money talks. But in fact, most people only notice the conflict between advertising and editorial when something jars. Why, they ask, has the magazine included a worthy feature on healthy eating, and then spoiled it all with pages of advertising devoted to high-fat, processed food products? It's an old argument that takes an upside-down view of reality. Magazines can choose their editorial; they can't choose their advertising. Not to that extent. Look at it this way; if you see at an incongruity like this one, you know you're reading a title strong enough not to bow to advertising pressure. It's a good thing!
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Well maybe. But there's one area where independence is necessary. If you're offering advice to people, your magazine will be judged by the quality of that advice. GH tests a vast number of consumer goods each year, and publishes the resulting scores for the best. Without independence, this process would mean nothing. With it, the magazine has become strong enough, in these particular pages, to command a degree of respect from advertisers. Consumer trust is a powerful tool.
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Which brings me to you, dear reader. Since your money matters but little to a magazine, do you count for anything at all? The answer's more heartening than you might think. Without good circulation figures (GH's currently sit just above 415,000), there is no demanding £18,000 a page. So your opinion is courted because if you don't like GH, you won't buy it, and then bad things will start to happen to advertising revenue. GH and its sister titles not only keep an eye on the circulation figures, but they also look into how readers respond to the magazine. Surveys are conducted and graphs produced, detailing the exact reactions to each and every magazine page. It doesn't take long to find out when you don't like something. When you set yourself up as a magazine that well-informed women can trust (that word again), you open yourself up to all sorts of expectations.
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And that's my final case for the defence; magazines print what readers want to see. However you might feel about it, there are millions of women out there who want to read about how to lose weight, deal with wrinkles and beat stress. Without them, GH and co would have sunk without trace. Politics, topical issues and charity work aside, it looks very much as if glossy magazines appeal to our more frivolous natures.
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That is, of course, what the critics pounce on. From the likes of Sugar and Cosmo Girl!, marketed at young teenagers, through Cosmopolitan, Elle and Red, to Woman & Home, they claim, women spend their whole lives being taught how to look, feel, act and please their man. And the resulting gap between their expectations and the inevitable reality leads to all sorts of unpleasant consequences.
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Magazines are culpable. It's not fair to airbrush a model, then present her as a picture of what we ought to be. It's even less fair to airbrush a 60-year-old celebrity and present her as someone who's managed to avoid the ravages of time. And the naked consumerism in most glossies is breathtaking. Expensive clothing, make-up, furniture and holidays are presented as everyday must-have items instead of the sometime treats they should be. It's the level of culpability I question. Look around you. The majority of women aren't shiny, glamorous creatures, and they're well aware of the time and energy that go into such perfection. I've never found a single one who takes glossy magazines seriously or believes that because they read it in Marie-Claire, it must be true. By citing magazines as positively good, I may have displayed a naivety that would entertain my work colleagues for weeks. But it's a defence born out of a respect for the professionalism that I know goes into the genre. Besides, citing magazines as an evil displays a different kind of naivety; the kind that believes there are no areas of grey. It's social fundamentalism and we all know that can never be good.
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