The Miracle Machine That Keeps A Dying Magazine Alive

Smithsonian is a good magazine. The January issue has a fascinating piece about the genetic components of morality; the convergence of politics, urban planning and organized crime in the slums of Rio de Janeiro and a Ron Rosenbaum interview with Jaron Lanier about the Web dystopia he helped create.

The ads are kind of fascinating too. Nothing in the automotive category or consumer goods. No fashion, no financial services, no tech, no airline, no alcoholic beverages, no retail. But for a back page from V8 vegetable juice, the issue is financed wholly by direct-response advertisers and a mess of house ads for various Smithsonian enterprises. That’s a function of two factors:

1.     The overall media economy. The magazine business as a whole is circling the drain.

2.     Demographics. The average Smithsonian subscriber has been dead since 2008.

The question becomes, then: what price survival? Smithsonian is, after all, the official magazine of the Smithsonian Institution, which is in turn the cherished (tax-supported) vault of the nation’s knowledge, culture, technology and history. As such, it both enjoys and confers the priceless prestige of the institution. It is a significantly greater honor to be featured in Smithsonian than in, for example, High Society. But just as the cachet of Smithsonian rubs off on its advertisers, the nature of the advertisers rubs off on Smithsonian.



The Alaska cruises and self-help videos are probably neutral in that regard. The large-font, intentionally-dumb cell phones and VideoEye magnifier are a bit geriatric, but demographically on target. But that is a telling fact. Seniors are not merely more informed than the rest of the population, they are also as a group more vulnerable. Fixed incomes, fear and gathering confusion combine to define a cohort at risk -- at risk, for example, from sleaze.

The New York Mint, a private direct-response outfit in no way connected with any government, is peddling the Gold Australian Kangaroo coin to those rare collectors clever enough to snap up $26.80 worth of gold for only $74.50 plus shipping and handling. Thanks to the miracle of magnification, the 3-inch-wide image shows off every detail. The actual coin is the size of an M&M, albeit not as thick.

If that opportunity isn’t exciting enough, the same advertisers offer a “full Quarter-Pound Bag” full of vintage buffalo nickels for only $49 plus S&H. That’s 22 or 23 coins, worth -- if they are in good numismatic condition -- between $5 and $25. If not in good condition, their copper and nickel scrap value for the whole bag is $1.15.

“Supplies Limited – Order Now!”

Presumably, this does not constitute criminal activity, but it should be disqualifying conduct for doing business with an arm of the (tax-supported) Smithsonian Institution, should it not? And if bilking people on gold and collectibles isn’t disqualifying, consider perhaps “Grow Young with HGH…The Reverse Aging Miracle.”

Continued use of HGH will make a radical difference in your health, HGH is particularly helpful to the elderly who, given a choice, would rather stay independent in their own home, strong, healthy and alert enough to manage their own affairs, exercise and stay involved in their communities.

(Note to Federal Trade Commission and the Food and Drug Administration: The Smithsonian is just across the street.)

Incredibly, in January’s Smithsonian, that’s not the worst of it. Two pages later comes a crackpot screed from John Ellis, proprietor of, who has luckily defeated one or two laws of physics to reconfigure the water molecule to stop disease and enable energy independence. Pay heed -- he went to the same prep school as JFK and sold one of his machines to the cousin of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. So…

There is in his incoherent ramblings, however, one trenchant sentence: “We advertised in the Washington Times, Popular Mechanics and now Smithsonian that are read by our world’s top scientists!” Yes, he explicitly trades on the prestige of the publications cynical or desperate enough to take his money. Even as you read this, some gullible senior is paying $2,800 for a miracle water machine because it has the Smithsonian’s imprimatur. Which is just disgusting.

This is what I mentioned to Lori Erdos, the magazine’s business development director, and she did not disagree.

“We’re on it,” she said. “That ad will never appear in Smithsonian again.”

But if John Ellis is disqualified, what about the rest of them? If all the sketchy ads are culled from the magazine, there had better be a very big upswing in Alaska-cruise demand, or there will be very little left. And so once again, the question:

What price survival? I’m not sure -- but I know there is life, and life with dignity. If a miracle water machine is what it takes to keep Smithsonian alive, it pains me to suggest, maybe it’s time for someone to think very seriously about pulling the plug.

3 comments about "The Miracle Machine That Keeps A Dying Magazine Alive".
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  1. Nicholas Theodore from Self-Employed, February 11, 2013 at 7:55 a.m.

    How sad to see Smithsonian Magazine scraping the bottom of the barrel instead of trying to innovate.
    But magazines have always managed to shoot themselves in the foot [killing their credibility factor] while searching for advertising revenue during difficult times--plugs, advertorials, 'native advertising,' etc.

  2. Paula Lynn from Who Else Unlimited, February 11, 2013 at 10:46 a.m.

    Casinos tell you how much money was won: Put 3 quarters in, you get 2 back - You won. Casino pays out 50 cents in winnings. But back to the Smithsonian. I would venture to bet if you would go take a look at the operation including management, you would find almost no one in charge outside of editorial. And those who have anything to do with advertising and marketing are busy not doing other jobs, going to parties, cashing their checks, have titles with no skill and biding their time. Like I said, no one is in charge.

  3. Thomas Ferro from Bank of America, February 11, 2013 at 11:16 p.m.

    I guess the Smithsonian is just the latest example of the "evolution" in media - only the strong survive, and if the content isn't compelling enough, what they are peddling isn't going to matter very soon. The last issue was particularly shrill and discouraging.

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