When a Product Becomes Too Successful
In the magazine world, a publisher is the person responsible for advertising. When I read Alan Katz had been fired as publisher of Vanity Fair after less than a year because advertising was down 15 percent, I let out a loud sigh.
And decided to cancel my subscription.
Last week, a couple of monsters were squeezed through the mail slot of my front door and landed with thumps on the hall floor.
Monstrosity #1: The September 2006 issue of Vanity Fair (400 pages)
Monstrosity #2: The September 2006 issue of Real Simple (356 pages)
Real Simple (“life made easier”) from Time Inc. was subscribed to by my wife. Life with me being very difficult at best, this publication hopefully helps keep her world in balance and provides myriad tips on “Looking great in less time” (Peggy looks great any time), “Organizing digital photos,” “Your money questions answered” and “Special pull-out cookbook: a month of dinners.”
Personally, “service books,” “shelter books” and “fashion books” bore me to stupefaction. When a waiting room magazine rack contains a diet of this pap—or books devoted to health, golf, automobiles, parenting or the outdoors—I am one miserable puppy.
The Supermag of Supermodels, Vanity Fair
When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, the attic was filled with old magazines from the 1920s and 1930s. Rainy days were spent reveling in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, the first two years of Fortune, Life, Liberty, and Vanity Fair. Both my father and uncle were writers, and knew many friends of Vanity Fair’s founders, Condé Nast and Frank Crowninshield. The old Vanity Fair probably had the most spectacular roster of great writers of any publication in American history. The design and illustrations—especially those by Miguel Covarrubias--were magical.
When Vanity Fair was revived in 1983, it was, frankly, ho-hum. But when Graydon Carter, formerly of Time, Life, Spy and The New York Observer, took over in 1992, the publication came alive.
I can’t recall when I first subscribed, but I remember the subscription offer: a buck an issue, or $12 a year.
“The right offer should be so attractive that only a lunatic would say ‘no’, ” wrote the legendary advertising practitioner of the 1920s, Claude Hopkins, author of the breakthrough book, “Scientific Advertising.”
Even the current offer for Vanity Fair is unbelievable—thousands and thousands of elegant, full-color pages a year for a measly $1.25 an issue.
I used to look forward to every issue, finding one or two great articles—profiles of contemporary movers and shakers and wonderful crime stuff by Dominick Dunne, always recounted in personal, emotional terms and superb prose. Here were inside looks at politics and world affairs by David Halberstam, Carl Bernstein, Michael Wolff and Christopher Hitchens. In addition, of course, were spectacular fashion ads and brilliant photography by Annie Liebovitz and Helmut Newton.
But the magazine kept getting fatter and increasingly more difficult to heft and read. I began to stop looking forward to it. When it arrived, instead of dropping everything to dive in, I found myself sticking it aside to read later, sometimes not getting to an issue at all.
I found much of the editing to be wildly undisciplined, allowing writers to be wordy, sloppy and self-indulgent. I remember once starting a Christopher Hitchens piece in which he wrote in effect,” Now remember what I have written here, because I am going to come back to it.” This is poor.
Then last week the 400-page September 2006 colossus arrived. On the cover was supermodel Kate Moss, who had been fired in 2005 from being the centerpiece of a huge advertising campaign by H&M, Europe’s largest clothing store chain with 78 stores in the United States. The reason for her dismissal: cocaine use. “If someone is going to bet the face of H&M,” said spokeswoman Jennifer Uglialoro, “it is important they be healthy, wholesome and sound.” Moss was also dropped by Chanel and Burberry.
On this Vanity Fair cover, Moss looks like a million bucks—butt naked except for knee-high leather boots, elbow-length white kid gloves and a white fur hat decorated with a magnificent diamond and ruby broach in the style of Faberge. Her face is a miracle of beauty and elegance.
That this coke-head rated a cover photo and feature story titled, “The Silent Beauty,” is as much an insult as is the preposterous deck:
Seemingly too fragile, too real, too natural to survive the cutthroat fashion industry—let alone the vicious tabloid lashing she received last year—Kate Moss has not only become the blue-chip international supermodel but stayed true to herself. The secret of Moss’s decade-long reign, writes A. A. Gill, may lie less in what she’s done than in what she hasn’t.
In point of fact, Kate Moss has abused the hell out of herself and sans professional make-up her face is a wreck. To get a sense of what hoops Vanity Fair’s make-up people had to jump through to create this cover, you are invited to go to the end of last page of this story. You will see before-and-after pictures of Kate Moss—the Vanity Fair cover and a photo from the August 21 Daily Mail of Moss “… pictured leaving a Bali nightclub after an evening drinking cocktails, her shiny visage, dotted with spots, proved that hard living takes its toll even on supermodels.”
Is it true that beautiful people are not required to “just say no?”
The Two Insurmountable Problems of Vanity Fair
* Editorial Schizophrenia: Vanity Fair has morphed into a dichotomous publication, which is trying to satisfy two distinct audiences. For example, the cover promises “400 pages of clothes, Gossip and Mad Genius” in small type and then in large type touts stories about the Bushes—father and son, how the Air Force screwed up on 9/11, stories on being inside Baghdad and inside Hamas headquarters, as well as profiles of Sofia Coppola and Kate Moss, and a story on ballet by Mikhail Baryshnikov. Also promised: “The 2006 International Best-Dressed List: Who’s In, Who’s Out?”
Clearly this is a publication of interest to serious news junkies like myself with the addition of some fashion frou-frou.
But. … peel back the cover and what follows are well over 100 fashion ads from the great design houses, plus occasional jewelry and automobile ads. All the young models—male and female—have bods to die for and expressions best described with words beginning with the letter “s”: sullen, soulful, supercilious, snotty, superior, stupid, smarmy, somnambulant, slobbish, sloppy, and once in while seductive. Not one of them looks to be a lively dinner companion.
Quite simply, these advertisers, are paying a page rate of between $93,037 and $114,860 (depending on frequency and a lot more for cover positions) to reach a rate base of 1,075,000—or roughly 10 cents a page per person. Who are these advertisers reaching? Two groups:
1) Me—a current affairs hound. However this advertising is totally wasted on me. I do not care a rap about Prada, Tommy Hilfiger, Rolex or Tiffany. Nor is such frippery as “Vanities,” “Fanfair,” the “Vanity Fair Agenda” and the best/worst dressed list of any interest to me.
2) Ms. fashion maven who wants what is new, chic, expensive as well as to revel in who is wearing what, divorcing whom and partying where. Is this reader interested in excruciatingly long thumb-sucking pieces about the Middle East, the presidency and 9/11? I don’t think so.
The magazine is aimed at two different audiences. Advertising and editorial content represent a disconnect. If half the readers are news nuts and the other half fashion fans, then the advertisers actually are paying double the promised CPM. Instead of paying a dime to reach a reader, they pay 20 cents to reach a desirable reader.
* Vanity Fair Screws Readers and Advertisers Alike: It matters not a hoot what I think of the editorial content. Weighing in at two pounds, this September issue of Vanity Fair is 400 pages of heavy, glossy paper with perfect binding that makes it impossible to read. In the celebrity world, only “Pumping Iron” star Arnold Schwarzenegger could muster the brute strength to pull the magazine apart so the pages seem reasonably flat. For the rest of us, the text and illustrations on every page curve into the deep gutter of the cast iron binding.
Text is impossible to read. The edges of spectacular fashion ads—so exquisitely photographed by the greatest camera artists working today—are lost in the gutter, their magnificent composition wasted.
What’s more, since none of the ads are paginated, it is impossible to know where you are in the magazine. An index of advertisers is impossible—a disservice to both readers and advertisers. See a story you want to read on the contents page and you cannot find it, because so few pages are numbered.
For a while I tried ripping out all the ads—tearing apart the first third of the book, so I could comfortably hold and read the articles. The floor around my chair had all the charm of a scrap bowl on the dinner table that holds artichoke leaves.
When Alan Katz was fired as publisher of Vanity Fair because advertising was down 15 percent, my bet is that advertisers were pulling out because it is possible to reach the right consumer with the right message more cost-efficiently than via Vanity Fair at 20 cents a pop.
So yesterday, when Peggy asked if I wanted to renew Vanity Fair, I said the hell with it. Let the other 1,074,999 readers spend time trying to pry open this cyclopean celebrity circle jerk.
Hatch’s Rule: Nothing in Vanity Fair is worth the discomfort of trying to read it.
What to Do?
I took another look at Real Simple. Hey, it’s an inch wider (9” x 12”). The pages are thinner and the margins wider, which means it is readable. What’s more, with the possible exception of a Brahmin handbag insert and a Chanel back cover, all the advertising related directly to the readership, including a plastic, $25 discount card tipped onto a Coldwater Creek page ad.
In short, Real Simple works—for its readers and for its advertisers.
Vanity Fair no longer does.