Real Simple for Dummies

As we all know–and this has been in U.S. News, so we all know it–the creation of a new, mass upper class is well under way here in America. This is both a cause and a symptom of the great bull market. One useful reference point for observing class formation in America is the magazine business. This has been true at least since the 1890s, when magazines like Scribner’s and Ladies’ Home Journal aimed themselves at large audiences, not necessarily possessed of hereditary wealth, that nonetheless aspired to a better standard of living. I gather that the goals of Real Simple, a new magazine just launched by Time Inc., are similar. The debut issue certainly looked both classy and helpful, peeping out among the tabloids at the checkout line at my local Winn-Dixie grocery store.

What I found inside, however, was more puzzling. The issue opens with a very lush four-page photo riff on top-quality products associated with a walk in the rain (coat, umbrella, boots, tea; prices and 800 numbers included). It’s a blatant example of a magazine trying to pass itself off as an upscale catalog. There’s a lot of mouthwatering photography in the issue, actually, including a fashion spread showing off Donna Karan intimates and the like, plus well-designed furniture, great-looking food, and so on.

Disconcertingly, there is also an article advising the reader that carrying balances on 10 credit cards is not a good idea, so maybe you should consolidate. Pay off the high-interest cards first, we are further advised. Oh. Later there are stories that seem to be sort of descended from the “simplicity” movement. In one, “the experts say” you’ll be better organized if you throw away all those old ATM slips. Another passes along notes toward “the fastest, easiest way to clean your bathroom.” For example: “The trick to all cleaning is starting at the top and working down.” Ah.

A magazine can act as a sort of class signifier–you leave it on your table and it says something to drop-in guests about who you are. (I mean print magazines, of course; figuring out a way to leave Slate on the coffee table is a little too theatrical.) Consider two of the most successful magazine launches of the 1990s: SmartMoney and Martha Stewart Living. The key to both was flattery. If you were the kind of person who had SmartMoney sitting around, then maybe you were the kind of person who bought Intel stock in 1990. If you were the kind of person who had Martha Stewart sitting around, then apparently you had excellent taste, and perhaps even the time to do those absurd little projects. There was nothing remedial in the look or tone of either magazine–even when they passed along the most basic tips about gardening or portfolio diversification–because an aspirational audience does not want to be talked down to. Both magazines were timed perfectly for growing audiences of baby boomers with very high opinions of themselves. They were trophy reads.

I gather that Real Simple is supposed to be a more “realistic” version of Martha Stewart Living–on the theory that no one really does the projects in Martha Stewart because they’re too complicated. This misses the entire point of aspirational magazines. Most SmartMoney readers aren’t really stock jocks with turbocharged portfolios, they just want to seem that way. And of course, no one really does the projects in Martha Stewart. No one even wants to, really. So leaving Real Simple lying around on your coffee table seems a risky business if you’re trying to impress anybody. “Gosh, Jane, maybe we should just order in if your credit situation looks tenuous.” Or, “Nice job cleaning the tub, Phyllis.” Magazines like this are supposed to seem like your cool new friends. So far, Real Simple seems more like a condescending in-law.