Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Magazine Covers

You may recall that some little while ago Jörg Colberg wrote a book called Photography's Neoliberal Realism about which I had things to say. I don't intend to further critique his book, but I will refer to some ideas from it from time to time. Let's think about the covers of magazines. Specifically, the kinds of covers with some perfectly lit photograph of some celebrity, the covers of "Vogue", "Vanity Fair", "Cosmopolitan" and so on.

First some non-controversial basics. This is just How Magazines Work. I may have a few details wrong, or insufficiently clarified, but in broad strokes all this is basic stuff:

The editorial staff of a magazine, any magazine, has a pretty clear idea of a notional reader, a member of their audience. Let's call him Bob. Bob is a pretty specific type of person, with pretty specific tastes, interests, educational background, socio-economic status, and so on. Magazines spend a lot of time and effort working out who Bob is, because Bob is the essential component of how they sell advertising: Bob x Number of Subscribers = Ad Revenue.

So the content of the magazine is stuff Bob finds interesting. Bob may want to be challenged, so not everything is (necessarily) stuff Bob agrees with. Bob may (or may not) want to learn new things. Etcetera. The magazine need not be pure Bob-fanservice, but it's Bob-centric.

At the same time the editorial staff may smuggle in their own ideas, often dressing it up as "Bob really needs to know this" or "What Bob is really interested in is.." and so on. Nothing too far outside the envelope of what Bob actually wants to see (otherwise the magazine simply fails) but editors can and do push that boundary. They can and do willfully shape Bob. Note that this shaping derives not from this article or that, this photo or that, but it rooted in the editorial policy and direction of the magazine. It's a process, not a thing. The photos and articles are just manifestations of the process.

So, to review, the content of the magazine is the result of an editorial policy which is made up of: the editorial staff's best guess at what will get Bob to buy and subscribe, blended subtly with the editorial staff's biases, smuggled in ideas, and so on. It is only to first order "what Bob wants" but that is the starting point.

For the most part, though, I'm not at present interested in any ideological or political gaps between Bob and the magazine's editorial staff, so let us now set aside such differences and treat Bob and the editors as, functionally, the same for our purpose today.

Ok, so what about covers?

The point of the cover is to grab Bob's attention, to induce Bob to pick up the magazine, to leaf through it. The cover plus the content, ideally, induces Bob to plunk down money to buy it. So, note, in particular, the cover doesn't have to do anything for Sally. We don't care about Sally, just Bob. Note also that this implies an alignment of cover with content. If the cover is a big cheat and doesn't match the content, Bob won't be buying the magazine. This, in contrast to click-bait headlines where as soon as you click they win. The headline doesn't have to match the content at all, there.

Covers have to be enticing to Bob, and also align with the content, which in turn aligns with editorial policy, which is roughly Bob's interests.

So, that's the basic "how magazines work" material, and, yes, it's rapidly becoming obsolete. It is being recast in new online terms though, and the old ideas die hard.

So who is Bob for, say, "Vanity Fair" and its ilk? Bob strikes me as someone interested in fashion, culture, contemporary style, celebrity, maybe food, maybe makeup, a few other things. Sometimes more general news, sometimes a bit of politics. But mostly the magazines with the perfectly coiffed celebrity on the front will be built around fashion/culture/style. Bob is attracted to the celebrity on the front as, we presume, some sort of exemplar of fashion, culture, and style. You could no doubt research this and discover what Condé Nast puts in their sales materials about Bob.

In Colberg's book he remarks that James Franco was deleted from a cover when it was revealed he had some #metoo problems. This is, I think, pretty standard. Celebrities lose their cover-worthiness when they fail to comply with whatever the current social standards are. In different eras it's different things. Communism? Public drunkenness? An affair? Depending the decade, these can be nothingburgers, or career-enders. Franco's deletion reveals something of what the current standards include for cover-worthiness, and more to the point reveal that a high degree of squeaky-cleanness is demanded in order to get a cover. What "squeaky-clean" means changes, but the need for whatever it currently is remains.

This provides another angle on the same notion: cover models are exemplars of certain facets of contemporary culture. They are stylish, fashionable, and they comply with the rules of society. They are socially successful. They're winning.

Apparently this is what Bob admires, and perhaps aspires to be. At least, the editorial staff think so, and they do sell a magazine from time to time so perhaps they're right.

Colberg tried to make a connection from Annie Leibovitz to Socialist Realism which, I contend, failed. In the process, though, he pointed to a relationship between certain kinds of magazine covers and heroic realism, which is ultimately where I am going here.

When Scarlett Johansson appears on the cover of "Vogue," that appeals to Bob. He likes her, he thinks she exemplifies certain things. This is precisely what heroic realism did, and does. The imagery reflects, in an almost blockheadedly direct way, the precise values that we're trying to express, the precise values we hold dear, the precise values we are unambiguously selling to the population.

ScarJo is presented to us as perfect. Perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfectly beautiful. Her behavior and attitudes are, by definition, perfect. It is established that "Vogue" will boot you if you're not perfect.

To be fair, ScarJo isn't heroic as such, but she is an exemplar of a certain desirable, aspirational, cultural type when she appears on the cover of "Vogue." The cover holds her "up" with the direction being operative. We are supposed to, as I see it, look "up" at her as an exemplar, rather than "across" or "down" as if she were a news item or an object of pity or sympathy. We look "up" just as we might look "up" at the figures in heroic realism.

She sells a lifestyle of culture, style, fashion (of a certain very specific stripe) as a desirable thing. A pretty expensive lifestyle. She may be selling a specific political slant on life, or whatever else the editorial staff is currently smuggling in as part of their editorial policy, but she's selling something expensive and un-revolutionary. Expensive, but status-quo. She tells us that large corporations await to serve our whims on makeup, styling, clothing.

The editors who own the editorial policy are affluent media types. Bob, one assumes, aspires to an expensive lifestyle, long on trappings but short on substance. Bob is not necessarily liberal, but the target market for these magazines is, explicitly, fairly affluent and fairly white, so probably leans liberal.

What is on sale is a corporate, expensive, liberal-scented status quo. It is being sold by a figure which practically glows with success, at whom we look upward. This is neoliberalism, being sold in a mode not unlike the mode of heroic realism.

Just to hearken back again to Colberg's book: ScarJo on the cover is precisely selling neoliberalism. Jörg has that part dead bang.

There are real differences, though, as well. Not only is ScarJo not heroic she is also real. She is an economic, cultural, social center in her own right. "Vogue" is also an economic, social, cultural center. The placement of ScarJo on the cover of the magazine is an alliance, intended to burnish both. "Vogue" is lucky to get her on the cover, and also she is lucky to get on to the cover. The cultural capital of both is enhanced by the relationship.

When I paint Heroic-Apollo as the exemplar of my new fascist state, there is no alliance of centers. It's just the state. Apollo is just a metaphor for my state. The goal is to take Apollo's shine for my own, and to give little or nothing back. Apollo may be burnished, but only insofar as he is subsumed by my propaganda efforts. Apollo becomes a logo, not a cultural center in his own right.

The neoliberalism is, I think, pretty much on full display in the magazines I'm talking about. These are not "Guns & Ammo" or "American Mercenary" or even "Muscle Cars for Muscleheads."

The heroic realism is present, I think I have shown, but in a modified way. You could argue that this thing is a different thing that just smells a bit like heroic realism, and I wouldn't disagree. It is different, but it does smell a lot like it.


  1. Not THAT Ross CameronFebruary 18, 2021 at 2:23 AM

    I’d say there’s a sizeable dollop of aspiration to it, in order for the sales pitch to be believable. The aspirational part may not be achievable, but it’s also not far off (still vaguely within the bounds of realism, if not particularly heroic).
    If we’re looking across, or even down, then it’s no longer aspirational, and there probably isn’t a big enough audience to make a feasible target market.
    Is there an element of safety to it? As in reinforcing social norms - I’m a part of this neoliberal tribe, etc

  2. "These are not "Guns & Ammo" or "American Mercenary" or even "Muscle Cars for Muscleheads." "

    Since you cite these notional titles, their real-world counterparts are operated along similar/identical principles, down to celebrities (of the right stripe) posing with firearms, trophy heads, and/or muscle cars. You may say in a less sophisticated style, but that is entirely the point.

    1. They operate with the same mechanics, absolutely! The point is that they're usually selling something other than neoliberalism.

      Yet other magazines sell a neoliberalism idea without anything much heroic on the front.

    2. Yep. New Yorker covers sell neoliberalism as post-modern irony (despite whatever editorial).

  3. Yeah, and about the paleo-reactionary photography of Woman's Day magazine's covers, so full of their heroic, overblown '30-Minute Dinners that are Packed with Flavor,' and other insidious propaganda?

    1. Neoliberalism (or some other stripe of corporatism) but not in the heroic mode?

      There's history with those fuckers. "The Feminine Mystique" is largely an investigation of how those guys rolled back feminism by 50 years and made a lot of middle class American women miserable for a couple decades.

    2. And then there's Playboy magazine.