Years ago, when I still worked in captivity in the magazine industry, a colleague and I would occasionally venture out into the un-airbrushed, real world on a reader-spotting safari.
It was difficult to single out the quintessential consumer of our title (which sounded more like a feminine hygiene product than a magazine). She had been vacuum-packed by the marketing brains as a thirty-something, married professional mother of at least 1.1 children. She also read mildly provocative literature, enjoyed cooking, cared about politics and the environment, listened to Susan Vega or Sade, and probably climaxed around 2.5 times a week.
Unlike the readers of one of our sister publications – aimed at young, single, available and apparently insatiable women – our reader blended in quite well with the general population regardless of the myriad subtle neuroses and small insecurities that whispered and cajoled from the dark recesses of her subconscious.
Readers of the other title could be generally singled out quite easily. She’d be the one tripping down a city street on impossible stilettos, wearing an often outrageous ensemble conjured to life by some famous designer outdoing his last coke-fuelled creation and that had appeared in that month’s fashion pages. “It’s aspirational silly!” my colleague and I would smugly shout out in unison.
That’s the charm of old-fashioned print magazines. Life just looks so much better between the glossy pages whatever the market. It’s life lite; life scoured of the frayed edges, uneven skin tones, unpleasant odours and unpalatable truths.
Glossy magazines, particularly women’s magazines, are a bit like religious texts. They offer a kind of truth and a way to a life that is inevitably better than the one you currently lead. And like religious texts, they deposit small insecurities and provide injunctions, admonishments and codes of conduct designed to keep you feeling uncomfortably inadequate and utterly dependent on their wisdom and guidance.
“You’re a sinner, you’re overweight, getting older, need a wardrobe makeover, don’t manage your finances properly, can’t have a proper orgasm, don’t suspect your husband might be cheating or your son might be gay.”
And the remedies: “Repent, diet, do a financial plan, get a pedicure, find more ‘me time’, boot out your boyfriend, knit your own lesbian, roll your own tampon.”
And each month we keep coming back for more. Because no matter how snobbish the intellectual classes may be about glossies, these magazines offer a singularly personal form of escape and provide a unique emotional connection between the product and the consumer.
It is a feeling that cannot be captured in the speedy, ADD world of the Net that demands instant, economical, accessible and easily digestible news and views.
Hundreds of years ago, in a pre-literate age, it was the village gossip who transmitted vital information to a community. She’d have to be a woman, as the men would be forced to be non-verbal out on the hunt lest they frightened off an unsuspecting Okapi.
At the communal water well, I imagine this woman offering advice on which mudpack had the best skin-scouring properties or warning the other women about which man was a bastard.
Today that village gossip would probably be a glossy magazine editor, columnist or feature writer.
Magazines have an eerily personal presence. And it is this emotional connection that allows them to offer a strangely ambiguous experience – the satisfaction of consuming other lives that seem contained and almost perfect and where there is always a happy ending, even if it’s only aspirational.
Marianne Thamm is an award-winning columnist, journalist and writer.
- This column first appeared in The Media magazine (January 2009).