This Ain’t Selling Out, It’s Buying In

Ah, the golden age of magazines! Few people are more credulous about that fabled era than journalists who cover the media industry. How else to explain two recent articles in the New York Times and the New York Observer lamenting the decline of editorial integrity in American magazines?

In its Business section yesterday, the Times described a proposed joint promotion by Vogue and Elizabeth Arden in which Arden sends free products to Vogue readers. This, the reporter wrote disapprovingly, is “only the latest example of how publishers are exploding the traditional business boundaries of the magazine industry.” (Other examples: magazines generating in-house research for advertisers; free trips for NewYorker writers on an advertiser’s cruiseship; and more Vogue hijinks, such as a lecture series at Columbia for advertisers and a Vogue-Tommy Hilfiger party in the Hamptons.)

Leaving aside how delighted Culturebox would be to get freebies from Elizabeth Arden (doesn’t the Times know how much that stuff costs?): What’s new about this? When did women’s fashion magazines exist to do anything other than push advertisers’ wares? Consider this tidbit from Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture by Kathy Peiss, a just-published history of the American beauty industry:

“When J. Walter Thompson conducted an investigation of the toiletries market for Pond’s in 1923, McCall’s Service Department mailed eighteen hundred questionnaires to women readers, and Hazel Rawson Cades, beauty editor of the Woman’s Home Companion, opened her readers’ mail to the ad agency. Harper’s Bazaar introduced a Debutante Department in 1928 to gain market information for advertisers; it surveyed three thousand well-to-do young women, rewarding each with a grab bag of cosmetic gifts. Similarly, in the mid-thirties, the Delineator’s Beauty Institute called upon eight hundred readers to be ‘beauty consultants’ for product development and marketing purposes.”

Given the unillustrious history of the beauty magazine, it seems foolish of the Times to make Vogue’s co-promotional side deal stand for any ominous larger trend in the industry. Also, in what way is the Vogue deal corrupt if it doesn’t directly affect editorial copy? Not that Vogue copy isn’t corrupt, mind you–everyone knows that beauty books feature only the clothes and cosmetics of advertisers. It’s just that Vogue’s latest scheme strikes us as an unusually innocuous way to pander.

Which brings us to the New York Observer. Last Wednesday it broke the story (later reported in the Times too) that, in exchange for a lecture or two, New Yorker writers and editors will be flown to the South Pacific and other idyllic spots for a week’s cruise courtesy of an advertiser. The Times and the Observer treated this as a stealth attack by business on editorial. Culturebox considers it proof that the world is a wondrous place for New Yorker writers. I mean, no one’s even asking them to write articles about the cruise line!

Besides, this isn’t new either. TheNew Yorker has sent its writers on freebie cruises before, and not under much-maligned editor Tina Brown. Staff writer Mark Singer tells Culturebox that he took the Delta Queen through the lower Mississippi River in 1992, with the blessing of then-editor Robert Gottlieb. His companion was the late New Yorker writer Brendan Gill. Both writers gave lectures and were paid “cash dollars,” says Singer. “We wouldn’t have done it otherwise. They really made us sing for our supper. … I didn’t have any ethical qualms or quibbles. I wasn’t going to write a travel piece or anything.”

In a memoir whose title Culturebox is too lazy to dig up, Arnold Gingrich, a founding editor of Esquire, recalled that in the 1950s, when men began going bareheaded, the business side of the magazine tried to stem the decline of an valued advertising category by decreeing that all male Esquire employees wear hats or be fired. McCalls sent its readers questionnaires; Vogue wants to send them make-up. Esquire employees wore unfashionable hats; New Yorker employees go on cruises. What was that about the world getting worse?

Judith Shulevitz