Commentary

Cutting Through the Clutter

One of my favorite things about having this platform every week is that I get to laugh out loud at certain suppositions long-held by our brethren in the media industry.

If you're like me, these suppositions are worthy of our derisive chortles, as they run wide and deep. Some of them were on display in Joe Mandese's strong piece in Thursday's MediaDailyNews, on the three-year, $40 million campaign crafted by Fallon New York for the Magazine Publishers of America. The campaign opens with the Feb. 28 edition of Time magazine, and is basically a colossal pump fake on readers, with covers about the Dow hitting 500,000 in 110 years and the Cubs winning the World Series. "Hell Freezes Over" says the subhead...

It's a well-crafted, diligently thought through campaign that is intended to illustrate how close the interaction between consumers and the brands of their favorite magazines are, by jostling those brands' credibility with seemingly clear, tongue-in-cheek headers and copy.

"We wanted to make it look like something that's not trade-ish in feeling. Something that underscores the very personal connection that consumers have with magazines, especially at a time when consumers have so much more control over media content and involvement," said Jack Kliger, president-CEO of Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S., and one of the MPA members backing the new campaign.

The good folks at Fallon are executing some high-end, purely postmodern stuff here. But, I have to admit, the joke is too close to home to be a good one. Even if all it does is conjure up images of Sidd Finch, it's a painful memory.

Long-time readers of Sports Illustrated, probably a small minority among us, will recall the Sidd Finch piece, which ran on April Fools' Day maybe 15 years ago, and chronicled the path of a free spirit who could throw 160 mph, was modeled on Cy Young Award winner Mark Fidrych, and never really existed in truth. This was a favorite piece for the thousands of readers who got the joke. But, as is always the case, there were a minority who didn't get the joke, and they were pretty upset about it. Worse still, they let the magazine know about it for a long time thereafter, as did "critics" like little me.

The vast majority of magazine and newspaper publishers have long since given over their own editorial integrity to shock tactics, if not to advertisers, as evinced by a focus on conflict and bad news by editors and on a celebrity-acolyte culture that they have spawned and somehow seem to snicker at them. I'm not sure what started this trend. But, I'd start with whoever the Time-Warner employee who figured out that Time magazine's People section was the first place most readers went. Now, People magazine has a larger circulation than its parent.

People may engage with magazines - sure. But, for what purpose? "It's entertainment" seems to serve as the answer to all questions. But, what happened to news and credibility?

Those of you who are still reading, and think I must be a snob because of a bias against our celebrity culture, or who think I don't understand the power of a People magazine media buy, are missing my point. The reason this campaign will be effective, is because it's ALL entertainment now. People don't get their news from magazines anymore. They don't get it from newspapers either. At least, those under 30 don't.

By and large, Americans get their news from broadcast and cable. So, this campaign, "cutting through the clutter" as it strives, is really just part of a whole. In most consumer magazines, it's all about seeming cool - in Time, Newsweek, SI ...most major pubs. Perhaps it's because the Web has them all trumped in terms of time-sensitivity, which drives them all to "entertainment." The ads have been doing that for years, and the copy has been doing all it can in vain to keep up. No news there.

Let's put it this way - if you read In Touch magazine, you probably have no idea what I'm talking about, and you probably don't know why it's the fastest growing title on shelves today. But, its advertisers do. Magazines haven't been about "news" for a long, long time. People get that from the Web now, even more than they do from newspapers. No wonder the MPA is running their campaign.

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