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"Sex, Lies & Advertising"

by Gloria Steinem

Published in MS Magazine, July/August 1990, Reproduced with permission

Suppose archaeologists of the future dug up women's magazines and used them to judge American women. What would they think of us--and what can we do about it?

About three years ago, as glasnost was beginning and Ms. seemed to be ending, I was invited to a press lunch for a Soviet official. He entertained us with anecdotes about new problems of democracy in his country. Local Communist leaders were being criticized in their media for the first time, he explained, and they were angry. "So I'll have to ask my American friends," he finished pointedly, "how more subtly to control the press." In the silence that followed, I said, "Advertising."

The reporters laughed, but later, one of them took me aside: How dare I suggest that freedom of the press was limited? How dare I imply that his newsweekly could be influenced by ads? I explained that I was thinking of advertising's media-wide influence on most of what we read. Even newsmagazines use "soft" cover stories to sell ads, confuse readers with "advertorials," and occasionally self-censor on subjects known to be a problem with big advertisers. But, I also explained, I was thinking especially of women's magazines.

There, it isn't just a little content that's devoted to attracting ads; it's almost all of it. That's why advertisers--not readers--have always been the problem for Ms. As the only women's magazine that didn't supply what the ad world euphemistically describes as "supportive editorial atmosphere" or "complementary copy" (for instance, articles that praise food/fashion/beauty subjects to "support" and "complement" food/fashion/beauty ads), Ms. could never attract enough advertising to break even. "Oh, women's magazines," the journalist said with contempt." Everybody knows they're catalogs--but who cares? They have nothing to do with journalism. I can't tell you how many times I've had this argument in 25 years of working for many kinds of publications.

Except as moneymaking machines--"cash cows" as they are so elegantly called in the trade--women's magazines are rarely taken seriously. Though changes being made by women have been called more far-reaching than the industrial revolution--and though many editors try hard to reflect some of them in the few pages left to them after all the ad-related subjects have been covered--the magazines serving the female half of this country are still far below the journalistic and ethical standards of news and general interest publications. Most depressing of all, this doesn't even rate an expose. If Time and Newsweek had to lavish praise on cars in general and credit General Motors in particular to get GM ads, there would be a scandal--maybe a criminal investigation. When women's magazines from Seventeen to Lear's praise beauty products in general and credit Revlon in particular to get ads, its just business as usual.

When Ms. began, we didn't consider not taking ads. The most important reason was keeping the price of a feminist magazine low enough for most women to afford. But the second and almost equal reason was providing a forum where women and advertisers could talk to each other and improve advertising itself. After all, it was (and still is) as potent a source of information in this country as news or TV and movie dramas.

We decided to proceed in two stages. First, we would convince makers of "people products" used by both men and women but advertised mostly to men--cars, credit cards, insurance, sound equipment, financial services, and the like--that their ads should be placed in a women's magazine. Since they were accustomed to the division between editorial and advertising in news and general interest magazines, this would allow our editorial content to be free and diverse. Second, we would add the best ads for whatever traditional "women's products" (clothes, shampoo, fragrance, food, and so on) that surveys showed Ms. readers used. But we would ask them to come in without the usual quid pro quo of "complementary copy." We knew the second step might be harder. Food advertisers have always demanded that women's magazines publish recipes and articles on entertaining (preferably ones that name their products) in return for their ads; clothing advertisers expect to be surrounded by fashion spreads (especially ones that credit their designers); and shampoo, fragrance, and beauty products in general usually insist on positive editorial coverage of beauty subjects, plus photo credits besides. That's why women's magazines look the way they do. But if we could break this link between ads and editorial content, then we wanted good ads for "women's products," too.

By playing their part in this unprecedented mix of all the things our readers need and use, advertisers also would be rewarded: ads for products like cars and mutual funds would find a new growth market; the best ads for women's products would no longer be lost in oceans of ads for the same category; and both would have access to a laboratory of smart and caring readers whose response would help create effective ads for other media as well.

I thought then that our main problem would be the imagery in ads themselves. Carmakers were still draping blondes in evening gowns over the hoods like ornaments. Authority figures were almost always male, even in ads for products that only women used. Sadistic, he-man campaigns even won industry praise. (For instance, Advertising Age had hailed the infamous Silva Thin cigarette theme. "How to Get a Woman's Attention: Ignore Her," as "brilliant.") Even in medical journals, tranquilizer ads showed depressed housewives standing beside piles of dirty dishes and promised to get them back to work. Obviously, Ms. would have to avoid such ads and seek out the best ones--but this didn't seem impossible. The New Yorker had been selecting ads for aesthetic reasons for years, a practice that only seemed to make advertisers more eager to be in its pages. Ebony and Essence were asking for ads with positive black images, and though their struggle was hard, they weren't being called unreasonable. Clearly, what Ms. needed was a very special publisher and ad sales staff.

I could think of only one woman with experience on the business side of magazines--Patricia Carbine, who recently had become a vice president of McCall's as well as its editor in chief--and the reason I know her name was a good omen. She had been managing editor at Look (really the editor, but its owner refused to put a female name at the top of his masthead) when I was writing a column there. After I did an early interview with Cesar Chavez, then just emerging as a leader of migrant labor, and the publisher turned it down because he was worried about ads from Sunkist, Pat was the one who intervened. As I learned later, she had told the publisher she would resign if the interview weren¹t published. Mainly because Look couldn't afford to lose Pat, it was published (and the ads from Sunkist never arrived). Though I barely knew this woman, she had done two things I always remembered: put her job on the line in a way that editors often talk about but rarely do, and been so loyal to her colleagues that she never told me or anyone outside Look that she had done so.

Fortunately, Pat did agree to leave McCall's and take a huge cut in salary to become publisher of Ms. She became responsible for training and inspiring generations of young women' who joined the Ms. ad sales force, many of whom went on to become "firsts" at the top of publishing. When Ms. first started, however, there were so few women with experience selling space that Pat and I made the rounds of ad agencies ourselves. Ms. was asking companies to do business in a different way meant our saleswomen had to make many times the usual number of calls--first to convince agencies and then client companies besides--and to present endless amounts of research. I was often asked to do a final ad presentation, or see some higher decision-maker, or speak to women employees so executives could see the interest of women they worked with. That's why I spent more time persuading advertisers than editing or writing for Ms. and why I ended up with an unsentimental education in the seamy underside of publishing that few writers see (and even fewer magazines can publish).

Let me take you with us through some experiences, just as they happened:

Cheered on by early support from Volkswagen and one or two other car companies, we scrape together time and money to put on a major reception in Detroit. We know U.S. carmakers firmly believe that women choose the upholstery, not the car, but we are armed with statistics and reader mail to prove the contrary: a car is an important purchase for women, one that symbolizes mobility and freedom. But almost nobody comes. We are left with many pounds of shrimp on the table, and quite a lot of egg on our face. We blame ourselves for not guessing that there would be a baseball pennant play-off on the same day, but executives go out of their way to explain they wouldn't have come anyway. Thus begins ten years of knocking on hostile doors, presenting endless documentation, and hiring a full-time saleswoman in Detroit; all necessary before Ms. gets any real results. This long saga has a semi-happy ending: foreign and, later, domestic carmakers eventually provided Ms. with enough advertising to make cars one of our top sources of ad revenue. Slowly, Detroit began to take the women's market seriously enough to put car ads in other women's magazines, too, thus freeing a few pages from the hothouse of fashion-beauty-food ads. But long after figures showed a third, even a half, of many car models being bought by women, U.S. makers continued to be uncomfortable addressing women. Unlike foreign carmakers, Detroit never quite learned the secret of creating intelligent ads that exclude no one, and then placing them in women's magazines to overcome past exclusion. (Ms. readers were so grateful for a routine Honda ad featuring rack and pinion steering, for instance, that they sent fan mail.) Even now, Detroit continues to ask, "Should we make special ads for women?" Perhaps that's why some foreign cars still have a disproportionate share of the U.S. women's market.

In the Ms. Gazette, we do a brief report on a congressional hearing into chemicals used in hair dyes that are absorbed through the skin and may be carcinogenic. Newspapers report this too, but Clairol, a Bristol-Myers subsidiary that makes dozens of products--a few of which have just begun to advertise in Ms.--is outraged. Not at newspapers or newsmagazines, just at us. It's bad enough that Ms. is the only women's magazine refusing to provide the usual "complementary" articles and beauty photos, but to criticize one of their categories--that is going too far. We offer to publish a letter from Clairol telling its side of the story. In an excess of solicitousness, we even put this letter in the Gazette, not in Letters to the Editors where it belongs. Nonetheless--and in spite of surveys that show Ms. readers are active women who use more of almost everything Clairol makes than do the readers of any other women's magazine--Ms. gets almost none of these ads for the rest of its natural life. Meanwhile, Clairol changes its hair coloring formula, apparently in response to the hearings we reported.

Our saleswomen set out early to attract ads for consumer electronics: sound equipment, calculators, computers, VCRs, and the like. We know that our readers are determined to be included in the technological revolution. We know from reader surveys that Ms. readers are buying this stuff in numbers as high as those of magazines like Playboy; or "men 18 to 34," the prime targets of the consumer electronics industry. Moreover, unlike traditional women's products that our readers buy but don't need to read articles about, these are subjects they want covered in our pages. There actually is a supportive editorial atmosphere. "But women don't understand technology," say executives at the end of ad presentations. "Maybe not," we respond, "but neither do men-- and we all buy it.) "If women do buy it," say the decision-makers, "they're asking their husbands and boyfriends what to buy first." We produce letters from Ms. readers saying how turned off they are when salesmen say things like "Let me know when you husband can come in." After several years of this, we get a few ads for compact sound systems. Some of them come from JVC, whose vice president, Harry Elias, is trying to convince his Japanese bosses that there is something called a women's market. At his invitation I find myself speaking at huge trade shows in Chicago and Las Vegas, trying to persuaded JVC dealers that showrooms don't have to be locker rooms where women are made to feel unwelcome. But as it turns out, the shows themselves are part of the problem. In Las Vegas, the only women around the technology displays are seminude models serving champagne. In Chicago, the big attraction is Marilyn Chambers, who followed Linda Lovelace of Deep Throat fame as Chuck Traynor's captive and/or employee. VCRs are being demonstrated with her porn videos. In the end, we get ads for a car stereo now and then, but no VCRs and some IBM personal computers, but no Apple or Japanese ones.

We notice that office magazines like Working Woman and Savvy don't benefit as much as they should from office equipment ads either. In the electronics world, women and technology seem mutually exclusive. It remains a decade behind even Detroit. Because we get letters from little girls who love toy trains, and who ask our help in changing ads and box-top photos that feature little boys only, we try to get toy-train ads from Lionel. It turns out that Lionel executives have been concerned about little girls. They made a pink train, and were surprised when it didn't sell. Lionel bows to consumer pressure with a photograph of a boy and a girl--but only on some of their boxes. They fear that, if trains are associated with girls, they will be devalued in the minds of boys. Needless to say, Ms. gets no train ads, and little girls remain a mostly unexplored market. By 1986, Lionel is put up to sale. But for different reasons, we haven't had much luck with other kinds of toys either. In spite of many articles on child-rearing; an annual listing of nonsexist, multi-racial toys by Letty Cottin Pogrebin; Stories for Free Children, a regular feature also edited by Letty and other prizewinning features for or about children, we get virtually no toy ads. Generations of Ms. saleswomen explain to toy manufacturers that a large proportion of Ms. readers have preschool children than do the readers of other women's magazines, but this industry can't believe feminists have or care about children.

When Ms. begins, the staff decides not to accept ads for feminine hygiene sprays or cigarettes: they are damaging and carry no appropriate health warnings. Though we don't think we should tell our readers what to do, we do think we should provide facts so they can decide for themselves. Since the antismoking lobby has been pressing for health warnings on cigarette ads, we decided to take them only as they comply. Philip Morris is among the first to do so. One of its brands, Virginia Slims, is also sponsoring women's tennis and the first national polls of women's opinions. On the other hand, the Virginia Slims theme, "You've come a long way, baby," has more than a "baby" problem. It makes smoking a symbol of progress for women. We explain to Philip Morris that this slogan won't do well in our pages, but they are convinced its success with some women means it will work with all women. Finally, we agree to publish an ad for a Virginia Slims calendar as a test. The letters from readers are critical--and smart. For instance: Would you show a black man picking cotton, the same man in a Cardin suit, and symbolize the antislavery and civil rights movements by smoking? Of course not. But instead of honoring the test results, the Philip Morris people seem angry to be proved wrong. They take away ads for all their many brands. This costs Ms. about $250,000 the first year. After five years, we can no longer keep track. Occasionally, a new set of executives listens to Ms. saleswomen, but because we won't take Virginia Slims, not one Philip Morris product returns to our pages for the next 16 years.

Gradually, we also realize our naiveté in thinking we could decide against taking cigarette ads. They became a disproportionate support of magazines the moment they were banned on television, and few magazines could compete and survive without them, certainly not Ms., which lacks so many other categories. By the time statistics in the 1980s showed the women's rate of lung cancer was approaching men's the necessity of taking cigarette ads has become a kind of prison.

General Mills, Pillsbury, Carnation, Del Monte, Dole, Kraft, Stouffer, Hormel, and Nabisco -- you name the food giant, we try it. But no matter how desirable the Ms. readership, our lack of recipes is lethal. We explain to them that placing food ads only next to recipes associates food with work. For many women, it is a negative that works against the ads. Why not place food ads in diverse media without recipes (thus reaching more men, who are now a third of the shoppers in supermarkets anyway), and leave the recipes to specialty magazines like Gourmet (a third of whose readers are also men)? These arguments elicit interest, but except for an occasional ad for a convenience food, instant coffee, diet drinks, yogurt, or such extras as avocados and almonds, this mainstay of the publishing industry stays closed to us. Period.

Traditionally, wines and liquors didn't advertise to women: men were thought to make the brand decisions, even if women did the buying. But after endless presentations, we begin to make a dent in this category. Thanks to the unconventional Michel Roux of Carillon Importers (distributors of Grand Marnier, Absolut Vodka, and others), who assumes that food and drink have no gender, some ads are leaving their men's club. Beer makers are still selling masculinity. It takes Ms. fully eight years to get its first beer ad (Michelob). In general, however, liquor ads are less stereotyped in their imagery--and far less controlling of the editorial content around them--than are women's products. But given the under-representation of other categories, these very facts tend to create a disproportionate number of alcohol ads in the pages of Ms. This in turn dismays readers worried about women and alcoholism.

We hear in 1980 that women in the Soviet Union have been producing feminist samizdat (underground, self-published books) and circulating them throughout the country. As punishment, four of the leaders have been exiled. Though we are operating on our usual shoestring, we solicit individual contributions to send Robin Morgan to interview these women in Vienna. The result is an exclusive cover story that includes the first news of a populist peace movement against the Afghanistan occupation, a prediction of glasnost to come, and a grass roots, intimate view of Soviet women's lives. From the popular press to women's studies courses, the response is great. The story wins a Front Page award. Nonetheless, this journalistic coup undoes years of efforts to get an ad schedule from Revlon. Why? Because the Soviet women on our cover are not wearing makeup.

Four years of research and presentations go into convincing airlines that women now make travel choices and business trips. United, the first airline to advertise in Ms is so impressed with the response from our readers that one of its executives appears in a film for our ad presentations. As usual, good ads get great results. But we have problems unrelated to such results. For instance: because American Airlines flight attendants include among their labor demands the stipulation that they could choose to have their last names preceded by "Ms" on their name tags--in a long-delayed revolt against the standard, "I am your pilot, Captain Rothgart, and this is your flight attendant, Cindy Sue"--American officials seem to hold the magazine responsible. We get no ads. There is still a different problem at Eastern. A vice president cancels subscriptions for thousands of copies on Eastern flights. Why? Because he is offended by ads for lesbian poetry journals in the Ms. Classified. A "family airline," as he explains to me coldly on the phone, has to "draw the line somewhere." It's obvious that Ms. can't exclude lesbians and serve women. We've been trying to make that point ever since our first issue included an article by and about lesbians, and both Suzanne Levine, our managing editor, and I were lectured by such heavy hitters as Ed Kosner, then editor of Newsweek (and now of New York Magazine), who insisted that Ms. should "position" itself against lesbians. But our advertisers have paid to reach a guaranteed number of readers, and soliciting new subscriptions to compensate for Eastern would cost $150,000 plus rebating money in the meantime. Like almost everything ad-related, this presents an elaborate organizing problem.

After days of searching for sympathetic members of the Eastern board, Frank Thomas, president of the Ford Foundation, kindly offers to call Roswell Gilpatrick, a director of Eastern. I talk with Mr. Gilpatrick, who calls Frank Borman, then the president of Eastern. Frank Borman calls me to say that his airline is not in the business of censoring magazines: Ms. will be returned to Eastern flights.

Women's access to insurance and credit is vital, but with the exception of Equitable and a few other ad pioneers, such financial services address men. For almost a decade after the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passes in 1974, we try to convince American Express that women are a growth market--but nothing works. Finally, a former professor of Russian named Jerry Welsh becomes head of marketing. He assumes that women should be cardholders, and persuades his colleagues to feature women in a campaign. Thanks to this 1980s series, the growth rate for female cardholders surpasses that for men. For this article, I asked Jerry Welsh if he would explain why American Express waited so long. "Sure," he said, "they were afraid of having a 'pink' card."

Women of color read Ms. in disproportionate numbers. This is a source of pride to Ms. staffers, who are also more racially representative than the editors of other women's magazines. But this reality is obscured by ads filled with enough white women to make a reader snow blind. Pat Carbine remembers mostly "astonishment" when she requested African Americana, Hispanic, Asian, and other diverse images. Marcia Ann Gillespie, a Ms. editor who was previously the editor in chief of Essence, witnesses ad bias a second time: having tried for Essence to get white advertisers to use black images (Revlon did so eventually, but L¹Oreal, Lauder, Chanel, and other companies never did), she sees similar problems getting integrated ads for an integrated magazine. Indeed, the ad world often creates black and Hispanic ads only for black and Hispanic media. In an exact parallel for the fear that marketing a product to women will endanger its appeal to men, the response is usually, "But your [white] readers won't identify. In fact, those we are able to get--for instance, a Max Factor ad made for Essence that Linda Wachner gives us after she becomes president--are praised by white readers, too. But there are pathetically few such images.

By the end of 1985, production and mailing costs have risen astronomically, ad income is flat, and competition for ads is stiffer than ever. The 60/40 preponderance of edit over ads that we promised to readers becomes 50/50; children's stories, most poetry, and some fiction are casualties of less space; in order to get variety into limited pages, the length (and sometimes the depth) of articles suffers; and, though we do refuse most of the ads that would look like a parody in our pages, we get so worn down that some slip through. Still, readers perform miracles. Though we haven't been able to afford a subscription mailing in two years, they maintain our guaranteed circulation of 450,000. Nonetheless, media reports on Ms. often insist that our unprofitability must be due to reader disinterest.

The myth that advertisers simply follow readers is very strong. Not one reporter notes that other comparable magazines our size (say, Vanity Fair or The Atlantic) have been losing more money in one year than Ms. has lost in 16 years. No matter how much never-to-be-recovered cash is poured into starting a magazine or keeping one going, appearances seem to be all that matter. (Which is why we haven't been able to explain our fragile state in public. Nothing causes ad-flight like the smell of nonsuccess.) My healthy response is anger. My not-so-healthy response is constant worry. Also an obsession with finding one more rescue. There is hardly a night when I don't wake up with sweaty palms and pounding heart, scared that we won't be able to pay the printer or the post office; scared most of all that closing our doors will hurt the women's movement.

Out of chutzpah and desperation, I arrange a lunch with Leonard Lauder, president of Este Lauder. With the exception of Clinique (the brainchild of Carol Phillips), none of Lauder's hundreds of products has been advertised in Ms. A year's schedule of ads for just three or four of them could save us. Indeed, as the scion of a family-owned company whose ad practices are followed by the beauty industry, he is one of the few men who could liberate many pages in all women's magazines just by changing his mind about "complementary copy."

Over a lunch that costs more than we can pay for some articles, I explain the need for his leadership. I also lay out the record of Ms.: more literary and journalistic prizes won, more new issues introduced into the mainstream, new writers discovered, and impact on society than any other magazine; more articles that became books, stories that became movies, ideas that became television series, and newly advertised products that became profitable: and, most important for him, a place for his ads to reach women who aren't reachable through any other women's magazine. Indeed, if there is one constant characteristic of the ever-changing Ms. readership, it is their impact as leaders. Whether it's waiting until later to have first babies, or pioneering PABA as sun protection in cosmetics, whatever they are doing today, a third to a half of American women will be doing three to five years from now. It's never failed. But, he says, Ms. readers are not our women. They're not interested in things like fragrance and blush-on. If they were, Ms. would write articles about them. On the contrary, I explain, surveys show they are more likely to buy such things than the readers of, say, Cosmopolitan or Vogue. They're good customers because they're out in the world enough to need several sets of everything: home, work, purse, travel, gym, and so on. They just don't need to read articles about these things. Would he ask a men's magazine to publish monthly columns on how to shave before he advertised Aramis products (his line for men)? He concedes that beauty features are often concocted more for advertisers than readers. But Ms. isn't appropriate for his ads anyway, he explains. Why? Because Este Lauder is selling "a kept-woman mentality." I can't quite believe this. Sixty percent of the users of his products are salaried, and generally resemble Ms. readers. Besides, his company has the appeal of having been started by a creative and hardworking woman, his mother, Este Lauder. That doesn't matter, he says. He knows his customers, and they would like to be kept women. That's why he will never advertise in Ms.

In November 1987, by vote of the Ms. Foundation for Education and Communication (Ms.'s owner and publisher, the media subsidiary of the Ms. Foundation for Women). Ms. was sold to a company whose officers, Australian feminists Sandra Yates and Anne Summers, raised the investment money in their country that Ms. couldn't find in its own. They also started Sassy for teenage women. In their two-year tenure, circulation was raised to 550,000 by investment in circulation mailings, and, to the dismay of some readers, editorial features on clothes and new products made a more traditional bid for ads. Nonetheless, ad pages fell below previous levels. In addition, Sassy, whose fresh voice and sexual frankness were an unprecedented success with young readers, was targeted by two mothers from Indiana who began, as one of them put it, "calling every Christian organization I could thing of." In response to this controversy, several crucial advertisers pulled out. Such links between ads and editorial content was a problem in Australia, too, but to a lesser degree. "Our readers pay two times more for their magazines," Anne explained, "so advertisers have less power to threaten a magazine's viability." "I was shocked," said Sandra Yates with characteristic directness. "In Australia, we think you have freedom of the press--but you don't." Since Anne and Sandra had not met their budget's projections for ad revenue, their investors forced a sale.

In October 1989, Ms. and Sassy were bought by Dale Lang, owner of Working Mother, Working Woman, and one of the few independent publishing companies left among the conglomerates. In response to a request from the original Ms. staff--as well as to reader letters urging that Ms. continue, plus his own belief that Ms. would benefit his other magazines by blazing a trail--he agreed to try the ad-free, reader-supported Ms. you hold now and to give us complete editorial control. Do you think, as I once did, that advertisers make decisions based on solid research? Well, think again. "Broadly speaking," says Joseph Smith of Oxtoby-Smith, Inc., a consumer research firm, "there is no persuasive evidence that the editorial context of an ad matters."

Advertisers, who demand such ³complementary copy,² even in the absence of respectable studies, clearly are operating under a double standard. The same food companies place ads in People with no recipes. Cosmetics companies support The New Yorker with no regular beauty columns. So where does this habit of controlling the content of women's magazines come from? Tradition. Ever since Ladies Magazine debuted in Boston in 1828, editorial copy directed to women has been informed by something other than its readers' wishes. There were no ads then, but in an age when married women were legal minors with no right to their own money, there was another revenue source to be kept in mind: husbands. "Husbands may rest assured," wrote editor Sarah Joseph Hale, "that nothing found in these pages shall cause her [his wife] to be less assiduous in preparing for his reception or encourage her to 'usurp station' or encroach upon prerogatives of men."

Hale went on to become the editor of Godey's Lady's Book, a magazine featuring "fashion plates": engravings of dresses for readers to take to their seamstresses or copy themselves. Hale added "how to" articles, which set the tone for women's service magazines for years to come: how to write politely, avoid sunburn, and--in no fewer than 1,200 words--how to maintain a goose quill pen. She advocated education for women but avoided controversy. Just as most women's magazines now avoid politics, poll their readers on issues like abortion but rarely take a stand, and praise socially approved lifestyles, Hale saw to it that Godey's avoided the hot topics of its day: slavery, abolition, and women's suffrage. What definitively turned women's magazines into catalogs, however, were two events: Ellen Butterick's invention of the clothing pattern in 1863 and the mass manufacture of patent medicines containing everything from colored water to cocaine. For the first time, readers could purchase what magazines encouraged them to want. As such magazines became more profitable, they also began to attract men as editors. (Most women's magazines continued to have men as top editors until the feminist 1970s.) Edward Bok, who became editor of The Ladies' Home Journal in 1889, discovered the power of advertisers when he rejected ads for patent medicines and found that other advertisers canceled in retribution. In the early 20th century, Good Housekeeping started its Institute to "test and approve" products. Its Seal of Approval became the grandfather of current "value added" programs that offer advertisers such bonuses as product sampling and department store promotions.

By the time suffragists finally won the vote in 1920, women's magazines had become too entrenched as catalogs to help women learn how to use it. The main function was to create a desire for products, teach how to use products, and make products a crucial part of gaining social approval, pleasing a husband, and performing as a homemaker. Some unrelated articles and short stories were included to persuade women to pay for these catalogs. But articles were neither consumerist nor rebellious. Even fiction was usually subject to formula: if a woman had any sexual life outside marriage, she was supposed to come to a bad end.

In 1965, Helen Gurley Brown began to change part of that formula by bring "the sexual revolution" to women's magazines--but in an ad-oriented way. Attracting multiple men required even more consumerism, as the Cosmo Girl made clear, than finding one husband. In response to the workplace revolution of the 1970s, traditional women's magazines -- that is, "trade books" for women working at home -- were joined by Savvy, Working Woman, and others for women working in offices. But by keeping the fashion, beauty, and entertaining articles necessary to get traditional ads and then adding career articles besides, they inadvertently produced the antifeminist stereotype of Super Woman. The male-imitative, dress-for-success woman carrying a briefcase became the media image of a woman worker, even though a blue-collar woman's salary was often higher than her glorified secretarial sister's, and though women at a real briefcase level are statistically rare.

Needless to say, these dress-for-success women were also thin, white, and beautiful. In recent years, advertisers' control over the editorial content of women's magazines has become so institutionalized that it is written into "insertion orders" or dictated to ad salespeople as official policy.

The following are recent typical orders to women's magazines:

  • Dow's Cleaning Products stipulates that ads for its Vivid and Spray 'n Wash products should be adjacent to "children or fashion editorial"; ads for Bathroom Cleaner should be next to "home furnishing/family" features; and so on for other brands.
  • "If a magazine fails for 1/2 the brands or more," the Dow order warns, "it will be omitted from further consideration."
  • Bristol-Myers, the parent of Clairol, Windex, Drano, Bufferin, and much more, stipulates that ads be placed next to "a full page of compatible editorial."
  • S.C. Johnson & Son, makers of Johnson Wax, lawn and laundry products, insect sprays, hair sprays, and so on orders that its ads "should not be opposite extremely controversial features or material antithetical to the nature/copy of the advertised product."
  • Maidenform, manufacturer of bras and other apparel, leaves a blank for the particular product and states: "The creative concept of the _____ campaign, and the very nature of the product itself appeal to the positive emotions of the reader/consumer. Therefore, it is imperative that all editorial adjacencies reflect that same positive tone. The editorial must not be negative in content or lend itself contrary to the ____ product imagery/message (e.g. editorial relating to illness, disillusionment, large size fashion, etc.)."
  • The De Beers diamond company, a big seller of engagement rings, prohibits magazines from placing its ads with "adjacencies to hard news or anti/love-romance themed editorial."

Procter & Gamble, one of this country's most powerful and diversified advertisers, stands out in the memory of Anne Summers and Sandra Yates (no mean feat in this context): its products were not to be placed in any issue that included any material on gun control, abortion, the occult, cults, or the disparagement of religion. Caution was also demanded in any issue covering sex or drugs, even for educational proposes.

Those are the most obvious chains around women's magazines. There are also rules so clear they needn't be written down: for instance, an overall "look" compatible with beauty and fashion ads. Even "real" non-model women photographed for a woman's magazine are usually made up, dressed in credited clothes, and retouched out of all reality. When editors do include articles on less-than-cheerful subjects (for instance, domestic violence), they tend to keep them short and unillustrated. The point is to be "upbeat." Just as women in the street are asked, "Why don't you smile, honey?" women's magazines acquire an institutional smile. Within the text itself, praise for advertisers' products has become so ritualized that fields like "beauty writing" have been invented. One of its frequent practitioners explained seriously that, "It's a difficult art. How many new adjectives can you find? How much greater can you make a lipstick sound? The FDA restricts what companies can say on labels, but we create illusion. And ad agencies are on the phone all the time pushing you to get their product in. A lot of them keep the business based on how many editorial clippings they produce every month. The worst are products like Lauder's,² as the writer confirmed, "with their own name involved. It's all ego."

Often, editorial becomes one giant ad. Last November, for instance, Lear's featured an elegant woman executive on the cover. On the contents page, we learned she was wearing Guerlian makeup and Samsara, a new fragrance by Guerlain. Inside were full-page ads for Samsara and Guerlain antiwrinkle cream. In the cover profile, we learned that this executive was responsible for launching Samsara and is Guerlain's director of public relations. When the Columbia Journalism Review did one of the few articles to include women's magazines in coverage of the influence of ads, editor Frances Lear was quoted as defending her magazine because "this kind of thing is done all the time."

Often, advertisers also plunge odd-shaped ads into the text, no matter what the cost to the readers. At Woman's Day, a magazine originally founded by a supermarket chain, editor in chief Ellen Levine said. "The day the copy had to rag around a chicken leg was not a happy one." Advertisers are also adamant about where in a magazine their ads appear. When Revlon was not placed as the first beauty ad in one Hearst magazine, for instance, Revlon pulled its ads from all Hearst magazines. Ruth Whitney, editor in chief of Glamour, attributes some of these demands to "ad agencies wanting to prove to a client that they've squeezed the last drop of blood out of a magazine." She also is, she says, "sick-and-tired of hearing that women's magazines are controlled by cigarette ads." Relatively speaking, she's right. To be as censoring as are many advertisers for women's products, tobacco companies would have to demand articles in praise of smoking and expect glamorous photos of beautiful women smoking their brands.

I don't mean to imply that the editors I quote here share my objections to ads: most assume that women's magazines have to be the way they are. But it's also true that only former editors can be completely hones. "Most of the pressure came in the form of direct project mentions," explains Sey Chassler, who was editor in chief of Redbook from the sixties to the eighties. "We got threats from the big guys, the Revlons, blackmail threats. They wouldn't run ads unless we credited them."

But it's not fair to single out the beauty advertisers because these pressures came from everybody. Advertisers want to know two things: What are you going to charge me? What else are you going to do for me? It's a holdup. For instance, management felt that fiction took up too much space. They couldn't put any advertising in that. For the last ten years, the number of fiction entries into the National Magazine Awards has declined. And pressures are getting worse. More magazines are more bottom-line oriented because they have been taken over by companies with no interest in publishing. "I also think advertisers do this to women's magazines especially," Chassler concluded, "because of the general disrespect they have for women."

Even media experts who don't give a damn about women's magazines are alarmed by the spread of this ad-edit linkage. In a climate The Wall Street Journal describes as an unacknowledged Depression for media, women's products are increasingly able to take their low standards wherever they go. For instance: newsweeklies publish uncritical stories on fashion and fitness. The New York Times Magazine recently ran an article on "firming creams," complete with mentions of advertisers. Vanity Fair published a profile of one major advertiser, Ralph Lauren, illustrated by the same photographer who does his ads, and turned the lifestyle of another, Calvin Klein, into a cover story. Even the outrageous Spy has toned down since it began to go after fashion ads. And just to make us really worry, films and books, the last media that go directly to the public without having to attract ads first, are in danger, too. Producers are beginning to depend on payments for displaying products in movies, and books are now being commissioned by companies like Federal Express.

But the truth is that women's products--like women's magazines--have never been the subjects of much serious reporting anyway. News and general interest publications, including the "style" or "living" sections of newspapers, write about food and clothing as cooking and fashion, and almost never evaluate such products by brand name. Though chemical additives, pesticides, and animal fats are major health risk in the United States, and clothes, shoddy or not, absorb more consumer dollars than cars, this lack of information is serious. So is ignoring the contents of beauty products that are absorbed into our bodies through our skins, and that have profit margins so big they would make a loan shark blush.

What could women's magazines be like if they were as ad-free as books? as realistic as newspapers? as creative as films? as diverse as women's lives? We don't know. But we'll only find out if we take women's magazines seriously. If readers were to act in a concerted way to change traditional practices of all women's magazines and the marketing of all women's products, we could do it. After all, they are operating on our consumer dollars: money that we now control.

You and I could:

  • Write to editors and publishers (with copies to advertisers) that we're willing to pay more for magazines with editorial independence, but will not continue to pay for those that are just editorial extensions of ads;
  • Write to advertisers (with copies to editors and publishers) that we want fiction, political reporting, consumer reporting--whatever is, or is not, supported by their ads;
  • Put as much energy into breaking advertising's control over content as into changing the images in ads, or protesting ads for harmful products like cigarettes;
  • Support only those women's magazines and products that take us seriously as readers and consumers.

Those of us in the magazine world can also use the carrot-and stick technique. For instance: pointing out that, if magazines were a regulated medium like television, the demands of advertisers would be against FCC rules. Payola and extortion could be punished. As it is, there are probably illegalities. A magazine's postal rates are determined by the ratio of ad to edit pages, and the former costs more than the latter. So much for the stick. The carrot means appealing to enlightened self-interest. For instance: there are many studies showing that the greatest factor in determining an ad's effectiveness is the credibility of its surroundings. The "higher the rating of editorial believability," concluded a 1987 survey by the Journal of Advertising Research, "the higher the rating of the advertising." Thus, an impenetrable wall between edit and ads would also be in the best interest of advertisers. Unfortunately, few agencies or clients hear such arguments. Editors often maintain the false purity of refusing to talk to them at all. Instead, they see ad salespeople who know little about editorial, are trained in business as usual, and are usually paid by commission.

Editors might also band together to take on controversy. That happened once when all the major women's magazines did articles in the same month of the Equal Rights Amendment. It could happen again.

It's been almost three years away from life between the grindstones of advertising pressures and readers' needs. I'm just beginning to realize how edges got smoothed down--in spite of all our resistance. I remember feeling put upon when I changed "Porsche" to "car" in a piece about Nazi imagery in German pornography by Andrea Dworkin--feeling sure Andrea would understand that Volkswagen, the distributor of Porsche and one of our few supportive advertisers, asked only to be far away from Nazi subjects. It's taken me all this time to realize the Andrea was the one with a right to feel put upon. Even as I write this, I get a call from a writer of Elle, who is doing a whole article on where women part their hair. Why, she wants to know, do I part mine in the middle? It's all so familiar. A writer trying to make something of a nothing assignment; an editor laboring to think of new ways to attract ads: readers assuming that other women must want this ridiculous stuff; more women suffering from lack of information, insight, creativity, and laughter that could be on the these same pages.

I ask you: Can't we do better than this?

Gloria Steinem was a founding editor of "Ms Magazine" in 1972.



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