I bought you last week for the first time in years. Your February issue caught my eye while I was waiting for a train at Penn Station. You’re still the fairest of them all. Your cover pulled me in like it was 1991 (yes, that one with Demi Moore).
That was also the year we first met. Do you remember?
I was buying print ads and you were one of the many pretty faces selling them. I can admit now I read the others because it was my job, but I read you because I needed you in my life. Reading you made me more interesting, and your beauty shone on my coffee table. Oh how I used to brag about you to all my friends.
I know — it was a different time, and so much has changed.
So as I sat on the train with time on my hands and you back in them, I began to read you as if it were the first time all over again. Only this time, it was immediately clear how impossible it would be to ignore the impact the Internet has had on you and on me.
All those spread ads prior to your table of contents (TOC) felt like video “pre-roll ads” — but unlike online, where users go to great lengths to ignore pre-roll ads, yours captivated my attention. You still attract the most artful advertising in the business.
Directly after your TOC, I encountered a heavy stock double-sided ad that was so heavy, it made it difficult for the pages afterwards to stay turned. This felt like an online rich-media unit getting in the way of my reading experience. It also made me think about how much peer pressure you must be feeling to be more like your Web sister.
I hope you know that changing anything about you to be more like the Internet would be a terrible mistake. Readers pick you up today to escape the Internet. They pick you up to disconnect from their devices. They pick you up to lower their heart rates. Doing anything that reminds them of the Internet is exactly what they don’t want.
They want you to be you.
They want to rub elbows with your fraternity of acclaimed writers like James Wolcott, and drink in his words on the resounding rebound of podcasts. They crave your intimate introductions to people they see but can’t meet, like Fox’s Megyn Kelly. They loathe yet love your unexpected insights on public figures that make them erase the conclusions they had already drawn. Your profile on Martin Shkreli (“Poison Pill”) made me realize how much I have missed you.
Your final page has always been a favorite. “Proust Questionnaire” poses questions to public figures like “What is the quality in a person you most admire?” followed by “Which trait do you deplore the most?” This unique style of Q&A has always brought the human being out of these public personas.
When I turned to your last page, my heart broke for you, Vanity. The “Proust Questionnaire” was with Derek Zoolander, a character in a movie opening next month in theaters near you.
I understand the pressure. Remember, I moved over to ad sales, so I know what these requests sound like: “Just do it this one time” to help close this ad deal.
The argument for publishing advertising as a form of content is that the content quality is “really, really good-looking.” So the reader will experience a benefit while being able to decipher its origin. That’s likely true, but it’s not the right question.
The right question to ask, Vanity: “Is that content we produced for an advertiser better and more credible than the content we are not putting there instead?” What if the February “Proust Questionnaire” was with David Bowie instead of Derek Zoolander?
Whether it’s called sponsored, native, or promoted, it’s all the same thing: wrong. You know it, they know it, and your readers can feel it. The oxymoronic thing about losing credibility with a reader is the belief that it can somehow be found again.
Adopting any Internet advertising practices, including “native,” is the worst thing you can do now. Your readers are coming back. Be more like the way they left you, and they’ll stay. Be anything like the Internet they’re escaping, and you will push them away.
I’ll be watching you.