Rogue advertisers

Who's to blame for trashy mags? Intestinal fatigue? Speak and others grapple with their demons. Plus: Embalming alternatives and Ikea obsession.

Published October 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

When we last left our friends at Speak, the world was coming to an end at the magazine's headquarters in San Francisco. Or so it seemed. In the Summer issue, publisher/editor Dan Rolleri wrote a heartrending editor's note about his struggle for survival in an industry dominated by fat-cat glossies with lame content and seemingly endless streams of revenue. Why, Dan wondered, did glossy titty mags like Maxim and GQ get all the dough while quality publications scraped by, issue to issue?

My response was that advertisers simply put the money where the eyeballs are. Four out of five eyeballs prefer crap to quality. Advertisers have a job to do. They want to reach as many eyeballs as possible, and preferably eyeballs that will be interested in what you have to sell. Hence, sports gear in Gear, cosmetics in Cosmo, and so on. If you want to have an intelligent, beautiful publication that's fine. But you shouldn't be shocked if subscription cards aren't overflowing your mailbox and advertisers aren't pounding down your door, wads of cash in hand, no strings attached.

But surprise, surprise. Speak has managed, somehow, to publish yet another issue. And in it, Rolleri returns to his lament for yet another go-round. (Along the way he calls me a "cynical Salon writer" with IPO issues.) Dan makes some interesting points. He establishes what we all know: Certain men's and women's magazines are more about selling product than providing content. Dan feels -- and I agree -- that readers should be aware of that fact. (Increasingly consumers are, which has led to more covert techniques.)

But then things get weird. Dan believes that advertisers prefer magazines that publish stupid content (Alyssa Milano's breasts, oral sex advice) not only because "one million young men" can't resist it, but because it makes the ads the smartest thing in the publication. "If magazine buyers, specifically glossy magazine buyers, seem stupid," Dan says in direct reference to my earlier reply, "it's because there are only stupid magazines."

But Dan's real problem isn't with his flashier older brothers getting all the breaks. He simply believes he's entitled to advertising money, too -- and shouldn't have to lower his standards to get it, as I suggested he would have to do. "This fall I plan to meet as many potential advertisers and agencies as will allow me through their doors," he writes dramatically. "And at this moment, with so many doubts about the industry and Speak's place in it, I have no idea what I'm going to say."

Will Dan be allowed to pitch his product in the hallowed halls of advertisingdom? Will Speak be given gobs of sexy cash without compromising its editorial integrity? Or will Jennifer Love Hewitt bare all in next season's issue? This young cynic will stay tuned. Because, in fact, I like Speak and want it (sans the burdensome editor's notes, of course) to keep on publishing its lushly designed pages and interesting articles about people I admire. Go, Dan, go!

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Stay Free, Fall/Winter 1999

A pair of khaki-clad feet dangle, lifeless, above a knocked-over stool and the caption "khakis swing." This macabre image graces the back cover of the latest issue of Stay Free. The message? Advertising kills. Or it makes you want to kill yourself. Or something. This is one of several zines dedicated to, ahem, "exploring issues surrounding commercialism and American culture," as Stay Free so politely puts it. Adbusters has mastered advertising's visual vernacular, and used it subvert the medium's methods and messages. Beer Frame uses Spy magazine-like reporting tactics and witty prose to make fun of consumer marketing.

What does Stay Free bring to this ever-growing crowd of ad-hating agitators? It aspires to introduce an academic, studied perspective on advertising to the zine world. To a degree it's successful. The front-of-the-book quotes from egregious press releases is like a one-track Harper's readings section -- quite amusing. Editor Carrie McLaren's article chronicling how corporations have invented ailments through advertising -- Fleishman Yeast's recommending its product to treat "intestinal fatigue," for example -- is illuminating. But while some of the faux ads were right on target ("Panexa: Ask Your Doctor for a Reason to Take It"), others, like "khakis swing," were non sequiturs. And the 11-page dialogue between two media academics, unfortunately, works better as a sedative than catalyst for discussion.

Orlando Weekly, Oct. 14-20

"A Smithsonian Tupperware Party" by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

I agree that the Smithsonian's decision to dedicate an entire book and exhibit to Tupperware, also a loyal donor, is suspect, as Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman point out in this article. Certainly, the increase in corporate funding to public ventures like museums and public radio does raise serious issues. But I hardly think the plastic maker and museum curators conspired to leave out information on how plastics are destroying the planet and soon we'll all be dead because of all the Tupperware we bought. Chill out, people! It's not like the exhibit was extolling the virtues of disposable diapers and cigarette smoke.

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S.F. Bay Guardian, Oct. 13-19

"Go Gentle" by Stephanie Hiller

As large companies have swallowed most of the funeral industry whole, prices have risen while choices for grieving families have decreased, leaving many wondering what other options exist. It's not a new debate. Jessica Mitford brought the situation to national attention in 1963 with her book "The American Way of Death." In 1987, Lisa Carlson published "Caring for Your Own Dead." In this article, Stephanie Hiller does a wonderful job of explaining the troubles within the funeral industry, outlining a history of opposition to traditional burial methods and looks at several pioneers working to provide alternatives.

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The Stranger, Oct. 14-20

"Over Four Million Served" by Ben Jacklett

The sixth largest employer in the United States is Labor Ready, a temp agency for unskilled workers. The company pays around $6 an hour, collects as much for its own costs and profits, has workers sign extensive release forms protecting Labor Ready from paying worker's comp and other benefits, and frequently provides scabs during organized-labor disputes. In this fascinating report, Ben Jacklett signs up for work and explores this company's climb to success and the hair-raising tactics it uses to maintain its fortune.

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Feed, Oct. 12

"Space, the New IKEA Magazine" by Matthew DeBord

I was a student at the University of Washington when IKEA opened up a store outside Seattle. There will always be a special place in my heart for that fine purveyor of warehouse chic. Matthew DeBord examines the cult of IKEA in this critical look at IKEA's new brand-extending magazine, Space. (Advertising-driven content at its finest!) "Space is a revelation," he writes. "It validates the worldview of anyone who has ever sat in his IKEA chair and wondered if the food he eats is adequately IKEA, if the clothes he wears look sufficiently IKEA -- if, in other words, there is an aesthetic that unifies his existence. The 17th century had Shakespeare, the 19th century had Hegel. In the late 20th, we resolve our dialectical crises with the Jussi coffee table."

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L.A. Weekly, Oct. 15-21

"Love and Hell" by Jonny Whiteside

A wonderful, detailed profile of the persona, career, past and present of Merle Haggard.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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