Advertising – the cause of toxic women’s magazines?

Until a new source of revenue can be found, women’s magazines will continue to pursue materialism and the objectification of women

You know that when people running self-help courses have sessions dedicated to recognising the self-loathing and spitefulness incited by women’s magazines, the sector has a problem.

It’s hardly a particularly secret problem. The feminist blog the Vagenda does a deliciously good job of taking the piss out of women’s magazines, the nationals have run articles on it and most women I talk to despair of the content in these publications that are meant to be aimed at us.

These magazines that sit on shop shelves designated as “women’s interest” are filled to the brim with (mostly unaffordable) fashion we MUST HAVE, celebrity tittle tattle normally made up and/or gleefully recounting the misery of some female celeb and some token attempt at a serious feature that sometimes is good but sometimes is frankly laughable.

I remember one magazine running an article on female bodyguards – an interesting topic with lots of scope for exploration of the training required, the effect on the social standing of these ladies  etc, yes? What we got instead was a lot of soundbites from each bodyguard, completely meaningless without context.

On top of that, these magazines are also obsessed with articles on sex and plastic surgery. A month doesn’t go by without several titles offering me sex tips that will turn my world upside down (sometimes that is the sex tip) that are not only rubbish most of the time, but also imply that pleasing my man is the main thing I should be thinking about ALL THE TIME.

These magazines encourage a culture of ‘more, more, more’, obsession with looking or acting a certain way and laughing at people who don’t fit that ‘norm’.

How can this be changed? Editors can hardly be oblivious to the criticism (and the falling news stand sales), so why aren’t they doing anything about it?

Part of the reason I suspect is down to revenues. Funding. In other words, the adverts that pay for the publication of these magazines. Adverts dominate magazines and indeed in some publications such as Vogue, turning all the pages to just get past advertising to an article leads to repetitive strain injury.

These advertisers are often fashion houses, cosmetic brands, luxury holiday providers etc. They only want to spend their money in magazines that have a female audience but which also aim to tap into the female buying spirit. I’m pretty sure pet magazines have a large female readership but De Beers ain’t going to be advertising in there. So to attract fashion house advertising, magazines need to make fashion a big part of it. Advertisers like to have their product blasted on the right hand page opposite an article that is hopefully related to it.

Building up a relationship with an advertiser to keep them interested in investing in your pages, also involves a little bit of editorial wooing. The odd reference to a brand here and there in the editorial parts of the magazine will keep advertisers sweet. Of course when you have lots of companies you wish to woo, that’s a lot of mentions to work in.

There’s also an element of editorial laziness. Find a female astronaut to interview? Tackle a tough ethical issue in an investigative way? Or how about whip out an “what’s in my handbag” type interview with the founder of a product aimed at women who may be inclined to spend money with your publication because of this.

By doing this, a self-perpetuating cycle is also started: magazine staff make a big deal of articles on cosmetics, cosmetics brands flock to advertise, magazine staff try to keep revenues up and make sure cosmetics and articles related to women’s appearance become a regular fixture and indeed take up a lot of the magazine alongside more adverts, magazine staff start to neglect the other things that matter to women when writing articles.

This multitude of “aspirational” adverts (yes, advertisers and sales people are fully aware that most people can’t actually afford the product, but gaining extra kudos allows them to drive up the price for those who can flash the cash) promotes a culture of envy and ‘buy, buy, buy’ and the idealism that material things will make you happy. I think it is this which also encourages magazines to run articles such as those rating celebrity outfits and starts a whole cycle of encouraging you to look down on other women or up to them for the most superficial reasons. And, on top of that, the models often featured contribute to the unhealthy aspirations for people’s body image.

If you want further proof that adverts influence the content, consider this – if the usual suspects weren’t allowed to advertise in a women’s magazine, who would be the obvious replacements? Can you imagine a Glamour without the designer perfume ads etc? There would be a lot of empty pages because a garden fencing brand or something else completely alien to the shopping culture promoted by Glamour isn’t going to advertise opposite an article on Cheryl Cole’s hair. The magazine would have to change its tune and rebrand sharpish. Successful magazines don’t just rely on gaps in the market, they rely on profitable gaps in the market.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love fashion and luxury items as much as the next person. And, it makes sense to advertise those sort of items in a women’s magazine, I’m not calling for a ban on it. I just wish there was a way that they didn’t influence the messages a magazine sends out the way they currently do. How can that be done? I suspect the answer lies with a new funding model, and until then editors should show some responsibility and reign in their commercial teams.

One thought on “Advertising – the cause of toxic women’s magazines?

  1. Pingback: Solving the women’s magazine problem | Not tired of life

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