"Sex, Lies & Advertising"
by Gloria Steinem
in MS Magazine, July/August 1990, Reproduced with permission
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?
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."
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
Let me take
you with us through some experiences, just as they happened:
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
are recent typical orders to women's magazines:
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."
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."
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.
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."
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."
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
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."
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."
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
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
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;
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;
only those women's magazines and products that take us seriously
as readers and consumers.
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.
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.
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?
Steinem was a founding editor of "Ms Magazine" in 1972.