What a quarter it's been for Esquire. In February the American Society of Magazine Editors publicly called out the magazine for guidelines violations, citing its "trap door" cover that month, in which an Open Here box led to an advertisement. In the end ASME issued an acquittal, though a strongly worded one: "There are ASME members who believe this cover execution is little short of editorial sacrilege...The lingering concern among ASME members is, will competition force magazines to accommodate especially invasive ad executions on their covers, disguising a sales coup as an editorial initiative?" Then an item last week on Gawker -- "Esquire Is Getting Nervous" -- noted the publication's ad revenue dropped 22% in the first quarter. Certainly this drop was unrelated to the cover "flap" (no pun intended).

Speaking of covers, a close-up of George Clooney graces the May issue. But, wait, there's more! It turns out it's the "first-ever Mix & Match cover," and by ripping and folding horizontally, you can replace George's chin, or browline, or philtrum -- and, hey, it's Barack Obama! Or one of 25 other guys. Collect 'em all, kids!

Apparently this is no ethics violation, but it does seem an odd gimmick for a mag that has achieved the gravitas of Esquire. In fact, last year the Museum of Modern Art launched an exhibit saluting the Esquire covers of George Lois, circa 1962 to 1972 (Andy Warhol drowning in a can of Campbell's tomato soup, Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian, etc.). Somehow it seems doubtful that in 40 years MoMA will place the Mix & Match series under glass, no matter whose nose is chosen.

Obviously Esquire is willing to employ new and innovative methods to sell issues, and that's no small task for print publications these days. But is it too 20th Century to suggest that blinking lights (yes, Esquire tried that with an E-Ink cover a few months back) can't do the work of excellent writing and artwork?

The May issue features some content that is excellent and some that isn't. Not surprisingly, there's some really good writing here, particularly:

  • Scott Raab's review of a new Mike Tyson documentary captures both the boy and the man inside the ex-champ.
  • Tom Chiarella's lengthy response to "What is a Man?" may or may not line up with your own, but it's elegantly stated.
  • Mike Sager's profile of Todd Marinovich, a hotshot football draft pick turned junkie, is a riveting look at the dark side of American sports culture.

    Other pieces don't soar quite as high. A profile of another Todd --"Todd Palin is the Man for America Now" -- fails to elevate the First Dude into the icon of manhood we're meant to believe he has become (unless you work for the Republican Party of Alaska).

    If you're noticing a pattern, it's not accidental. Mr. Clooney's facial parts are on the cover for a reason, after all. This is a themed issue: How To Be A Man 2009. The magazine's first person plural -- we this and we that -- never stops offering advice, though much of it focuses on what to purchase (leaving the feeling that ad pages come in many guises). But whether Esquire is advising you which power tools to keep in your garage or how to make a killer barbeque sauce, you're often left with an overarching sense that the editors are trying just a bit too hard.

    It's a given that other generations -- such as my father's -- would have gotten a good laugh out of all this man stuff. But then he and many like him were facing the hostile guns of a German Panzer Division when they were learning how to become men. That's not to say our definition of manhood hasn't radically changed in the decades since; I know I've succeeded in ways he never dreamed about.

    But I remember a true tough guy who once told me that the toughest guys he had ever met never spoke about being tough. Corollary: If you have to learn how to be a man from a magazine article, it may be too late. Ironically, on page 25, Ian McShane of "Deadwood" more or less states this in his Q&A:
    "ESQ: What's the best advice you ever got?
    IM: None at all. Work it out on your own, son."

    In one of my other lives, I teach a college course entitled "Writing Creatively for Magazines," where last week we discussed at length Tom Junod's transcendent profile of Mr. Rogers for Esquire, published in 1998. Without any hyperbole, I described it to my students as being the single best magazine article I've ever read. Thankfully, Junod still writes for Esquire.

    Nobody asked, but that would be my 21st Century strategy for Esquire: Fewer Blinking Lights on the Covers, More Tom Junods on the Inside Pages. That's something even MoMA could celebrate.

    Published by:
    Hearst Communications, Inc.
    Frequency: Monthly

  • 6 comments about "Esquire".
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    1. Jonathan Hutter from Northern Light Health, April 23, 2009 at 3:34 p.m.

      If I were Esquire, I'd tell ASME to take a flying #$^!. They're not responsible to the bottom line.

      I thought this was an excellent column and analysis on how Esquire needs to keep its brand at the front while it determines how to survive.

    2. John Zipperer from The Commonwealth Club of California, April 23, 2009 at 4:16 p.m.

      This is one of the best magazine reviews I've read on MediaPost. Thank you. It's well-done and you make good points. Esquire has always done best when it had the highest standards. I don't care about the cover gimmicks -- they have to sell magazines -- but what's inside ranges from great to juvenile. Consistency would be nice.

    3. Phyllis Fine from Mediapost, April 27, 2009 at 2:36 p.m.

      Editor's Note: We also received the following email from Sid Holt, Chief Executive, American Society of Magazine Editors:

      The review of the new issue of Esquire says that ASME “called out” Esquire over its Obama cover -- which ASME did not -- then selectively quotes from the ASME Web site to imply that ASME still disapproved of the Esquire cover even while “issu[ing] an acquittal,” which distorts ASME’s position.

      The ASME Board of Directors concluded that the Obama cover was not a guidelines violation, and there were members of the board who thought the use of the trap door, while controversial, was innovative. End of story.

      You can read the ASME summary here:

      This story got what happened wrong -- and the writer went out of his way to get it wrong. <P> <P> <P>

    4. Phyllis Fine from Mediapost, April 27, 2009 at 2:44 p.m.

      Editor’s Note: In response to this post, MediaPost received the following email from Nathan Christopher, director of public relations for Hearst Magazines:

      Many thanks for featuring Esquire in "Magazine Rack." However, in the interest of accuracy, I wanted to correct a couple of points made in this article.

      -- Esquire's February issue was never called out for ASME violations. There was never any doubt that what we did was within the guidelines. More to the point: The February cover flap opened to reveal more editorial about the issue -- cover lines and an image. There was an ad on the BACK side of the flap, just like on a traditional cover. But Esquire did NOT have an ad on the cover.

      Regarding both the February and the May issue covers, here's something that's really important to note: These were editorial creations. In both of these cases, the focus was on editorial, not advertising. They were created to further reader engagement and push the boundaries of print, not to create new advertising opportunities, although that was certainly a primary benefit.

      -- The May cover showcases three men -- Clooney, Obama and Justin Timberlake, not "25 other guys."

      -- Our October 2008 eInk cover did not contain blinking lights. That was actually eInk itself (electronic ink). No lights were involved.

      Thanks for your attention to this. We always enjoy reading the column, and would believe you'd want to be as accurate as possible within it. <P> <P> <P> <P>

    5. William Mcgee from Self-employed, April 27, 2009 at 3:09 p.m.

      The two readers who posted comments on Thursday afternoon seemed to fully understand my intent in this review: To implore the publishers of Esquire to retain the great writing and overall quality that has made the magazine an icon, and abandon gimmicky cover tricks that belie the serious content often found within. The penultimate sentence of the review sums that up: "Nobody asked, but that would be my 21st Century strategy for Esquire: Fewer Blinking Lights on the Covers, More Tom Junods on the Inside Pages."

      • My primary source in explaining the ASME decision was ASME's own press release dated April 16th (, entitled "What's Wrong (or Not) With This Cover?" In that release the organization detailed its recent guidelines decisions on Esquire and five other magazines. As for Esquire, ASME stated that the February 2009 cover did not violate guidelines, thus I termed it an "acquittal" because ASME publicly stated that it had investigated the issue. However, I don't see how ASME can claim it did not "call out" Esquire over this issue since ASME issued a release stating it had investigated the issue in the first place.

      Sid Holt's statement ("The ASME Board of Directors concluded that the Obama cover was not a guidelines violation, and there were members of the board who thought the use of the trap door, while controversial, was innovative. End of story.") is, in fact, not the end of the story, nor is it the full story. In fact, the ASME press release itself expressed a "lingering concern" over this issue.

      Further, the use of ellipses in the quote we used made it clear it was an excerpted quote. Here is the full "staff comment" from ASME on Esquire, with my quotes in brackets "[There are ASME members who believe this cover execution is little short of editorial sacrilege.] Board members thought that no matter how you felt about the trap door—and there were a lot of board members who liked it, thought it was pretty nifty—it still wasn’t a guidelines violation. [The lingering concern among ASME members is, will competition force magazines to accommodate especially invasive ad executions on their covers, disguising a sales coup as an editorial initiative?]"

      As for "going out of my way" to get it wrong, it was ASME that issued a statement dated February 5th entitled "Esquire Cover Flap" ( that noted the February cover did not violate the guidelines but also stated the following: "Still, there are ASME members who are worried that innovation will lead to abuse. Their concern is that editors will soon find themselves altering the covers of their magazines to satisfy advertisers."

      And here are Sid Holt's comments to Conde Nast Portfolio dated January 22nd ( "If they'd asked me, I would have told them what I'm telling you--I don't think this advertising execution violates ASME guidelines, but as one of our members said, it puts us at the top of a slippery slope." Holt added that the Esquire cover "has been the subject of much discussion not only among members of the ASME board but among editors in general."

      So Holt said the Esquire cover was much discussed at ASME and had put the industry at the top of a slippery slope in January, but told MediaPost the cover was innovative and that was "end of story" in April.

      • As for Nathan Christopher's email, his point that both the February and May covers were editorial creations is implicit in the review. In fact, the final paragraph sums that up, by calling on Esquire to focus on great writing rather than on what has generally been regarded by many within the media industry as gimmicks.

      • The comment about "25 other guys" referenced the "How to Use This Cover" instructions published on page 7, which includes the following: "Using the twenty-seven possible connections, create your own composite American man. Reflect." Since I had already referenced George Clooney and Barack Obama, clearly I was making a reference to the 25 other possible connections.

      • The term "blinking lights" was meant to reference the images the reader saw in the cover, not the actual technology that powered it. A quick Google search reveals more than a dozen publications and blogs that criticized the October 2008 cover, most in terms much stronger than I used. called it "a small rectangle with some blinking text" and said it looked "terrible" (

      Among other criticisms leveled at that cover: * a "blinking disappointment" (

      * a "blinking electronic cover" (

      * a "goofy gimmick" and a "battery-powered gimmick" (

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