Who Cries for Cargo?

The death of the men’s shopping magazine.

Somewhere in America, men are sad. Cargo, the magazine that told them what custom jeans to buy and where to find the right shaving lotion, is shutting down. It’s the latest men’s shopping magazine to fold, preceded by the more upscale Vitals and the more tech-focused Sync. Cargo’s May issue will be its last, and then, once again, men will be alone, alone on a wide wide sea of gadgets, wheels, and fashion. The pain is still raw, and the question lingers: Did the failure of Cargo lie in its conceit or in its execution?

Back in March of 2004, the answer seemed obvious. Brilliant conceit, brilliant execution. That month, 300,000 ad-laden copies of the premiere issue of Cargo arrived at newsstands, and Condé Nast, the publisher, expected nothing but the best from its bright boy. The previous June, the “metrosexual” had made his debut in the New York Times “Style” section and graduated into mainstream circulation. Men, it appeared, were becoming the new women. Cargo was designed with same DNA as Lucky, the very successful female shopping magazine. With natural slots for fashion, car, and beauty advertisers, Cargo seemed likely to be a layup.

But even from the start, there was a certain fatal queasiness about the magazine’s audience. Here’s the original publisher, Alan Katz, discussing the first issue: “It’s not for any stereotypical man or sexual orientation. After all, the Apple iPod doesn’t care who buys it.” Huh? The iPod may not care (it’s the rare unisex tech device), but it’s pointless to suggest that clothes, cars, and beauty products do not carry connotations with them. For a guy, the mere fact of paying attention to your appearance sends a message. As a fashion-forward friend once told me: Most men care about how they look, but only two groups of men will consistently admit to caring about how they look, namely gay men and African-Americans. Cargo would naturally appeal to the younger members of these two demographics, but it also needed these alleged metrosexuals to get on board.

The first issue clocked in at over 200 pages. It was very flippable, graphics-intense, and dotted with those peppy paragraphs, ladled with adverbs, that define the “voice” of a service magazine. (Most readers, I suspect, would be stunned to know how much time is spent crafting those blurbs.) There was a feature about how to fold a shirt sleeve, and a glossy layout of exotic cars. Women were asked to offer their thoughts on cologne. Cargo also sported the most noted feature of Lucky: the stickers that a reader could use to mark the products he or she wanted to buy. C’mon, who were they kidding? The stickers, more than anything else, underscore Cargo’s problem. It believed in itself. The smarter approach would have been to pretend not to care.

There were, however, men who took this seriously enough. Cargo’s editor, Ariel Foxman (whom I worked with briefly at The New Yorker), spoke fondly of the grateful letters he received from readers. And, incredibly, the Cargo message boards do contain earnest exchanges about whether or not wearing a collared shirt over another collared shirt is attractive or stupid. (Answer: stupid.) But the Cargo nation of males 25-45 never materialized, and advertisers noticed. (The February figures show a 32 percent drop in ad pages when compared to the same period last year.) The magazine, backing away from its pure conception as a “shopping guide,” began to put celebrities on its cover, hoping for more pop at the newsstand. Sure, celebrities can move copies, but they can also instantly broadcast your lameness. Witness Nick Lachey on the April cover.

Cargo, unfortunately, never felt like a peer, it felt more like your “confused” friend. What’s he going to look like today? The magazine veered wildly across the gay/straight divide, often in the same issue: one month asking 866 women to “Reveal the Secrets That Catch Their Eye” and also telling guys how to “Drink Your Way to a Hard Body.” Other magazines like Details and Esquire, with longer articles and nonservice content, walk this line with more finesse. Cargo’s tone was never right.

Given more time, Cargo may have survived. If MySpace profiles are any indication, today’s teenagers, under the influences of indie rock and hip-hop, look like a nation of metrosexuals in training. But I’m certain that most guys won’t miss the title, because they already have a men’s shopping magazine that they love. It has a circulation of over 4 million, and every month it provides chart-filled articles on cars, appliances, electronics, gardening, personal finance, and health & fitness. Men have been known to pass this magazine along to each other after reading it. They even save copies in boxes in the garage. The name of this august publication: Consumer Reports.