Mag-Life Crisis

Men's magazines tell male readers they are forever young. Women aren't so lucky: Magazines tell them they're already too old.

Today a man cannot afford to get old. Men's magazines won't let him: Middle age is no excuse for a sluggish metabolism--or sluggish spending habits. In the United States, there are about 40 million men between the ages of 35 and 50 whose purchasing power has reached a plateau. The magazine industry is about to send these aging baby boomers into cultural exile to make room for the 20 million young men in their 20s who earn low wages but have few financial obligations, giving them access to $125 billion in discretionary income.

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Men's magazines must solve a complex conundrum: meet the expectations of advertisers who want to reach these cash-happy kids--tequila drinkers hanging around the mall with their new Sony Discmans--and, at the same time, appease the sensibilities of sedate but loyal readers--scotch drinkers who still jog at dawn with their old Sony Walkmans.

While most men's magazines slowly react to the trend by appointing new editors (Ed Kosner was hired at Esquire), firing creative people (picture editor Laurie Kratochvil was dismissed from Rolling Stone), boosting their style coverage (regular guys' Men's Health occasionally runs 12 pages of fashion), or turning edgier (dapper GQ now features gritty black-and-white photography by the likes of Mary Ellen Mark), they still look stodgy compared with the magazine that is to the '90s what MTV was to the '80s--trendy, hot-and-bothered, iniquitous Details.

With only half a million readers, fast-growing Details is upsetting everyone's game. Its former editor in chief, James Truman, was named Conde Nast editorial director, a promotion that gives him power of censorship over 12 of S.I. Newhouse's prestigious and mostly female magazines.

Because of Truman's success, today advertisers want more than hefty circulation figures and readers with high incomes--they want the kind of growth, buzz, and action that Details provides. Esquire readers, though successful, college-educated professionals, are duds by these standards; they don't appeal to people who sell cars, cologne, CD players, sneakers, and booze. But Kosner believes it's only a perception problem that can be fixed with the new and improved "literary resonance" of his editorial formula. "If people read it, advertisers love it," he says. Unfortunately, he's wrong: Though post-Tina Brown Vanity Fair is a hit with readers (newsstand sales are up 13 percent this year), it is a very slim book--a mere ghost of its former self. Says an advertiser quoted in New York Observer: "Research shows quantitative reasons to be in Vanity Fair, but when the mystique goes away, advertisers start to wander."

At GQ, editor Art Cooper has kept that mystique by delivering image-conscious yet undomesticated males, readers who are, for the most part, still single. Advertisers love their youthful recklessness: They shop alone, without female interference.

Middle-aged Kosner and Cooper refuse to acknowledge the generation gap. Last spring they made sure that John Leland, Details' young editor, would not appear with them on "Charlie Rose." "We thought Leland could represent the ideas of younger men," said Rose's executive producer, Peter Kaplan, to New York magazine. But when Kosner complained, Leland was disinvited.

Rolling Stone, a magazine that championed youth culture for decades, also professes not to worry about the age issue. "Busters? Xers? We don't believe in buzzwords," says Kevin O'Malley, associate publisher. "The music scene, our primary focus, attracts the latest generation of the moment. For the last five years, the median age of our readers has been 26." Twenty-six going on 50. From the look of RS, its readers love artsy illustrations and tasteful portraits of men in groups. Compared to Details readers who favor geeky layouts and handheld shots of boys and girls mugging for the camera, they seem extremely staid. Last year, Details' circulation was up 41 percent, while RS's stagnated at 2 percent. Men who mourned the murder of John Lennon cannot produce a hot magazine for readers who mourn Kurt Cobain's suicide. Youth is the one thing experience and talent cannot buy.

Between fathers and sons there is a covert struggle for survival. But as long as advertisers are allowed to trade on readers' short attention spans and men's publications try to prove their youth, dad's favorite mag will look hopelessly dated.

While men's magazines treat their older readers as if they were young, women's magazines treat their readers--even young ones--as if they were already too old.

Women's magazines cast adolescent models in full makeup as adult women. With every passing season, the "ideal" woman becomes more childlike, pubescent. The waif look came first; baby dolls followed; now schoolgirls are legion. Bridget Hall, a child born in Arkansas 16 years ago, flaunts her fresh face and disquieting innocence across the pages of almost every women's magazine. "She is not beautiful--only pretty," notes Catherine Ettlinger, a magazine consultant. "True prettiness is a fleeting quality of youth. More than ever, women now wish they could simply look pretty. Bridget belongs to a new generation of models who project our ultimate dream--a desire to go back to the way we were."

But there is no way back--only a race against time. Aging is the enemy. Cosmetics are the weapons. Recent articles that extol the youthfulness of models 40 or older, like Lauren Hutton or Isabella Rossellini, are not meant to comfort aging females--on the contrary. Looking 20 years younger than your age is the only acceptable way to get old.

Allure, a beauty magazine launched in 1991, has built its spectacular success around an innovative message: The war against wrinkles is not for dowdy readers, but for young women with spunk and style. In its pages traditional makeovers are ridiculed; commonly held beauty myths are deflated; face-lifts and crash diets are disparaged. This candid--but oh-so-cheery--editorial approach delights cosmetic advertisers. While most women's mags have lost ad pages, Allure is posting a phenomenal increase--the January 1994 issue, for example, carried 78 percent more ads than the same issue last year.

Allure knows that advanced-formula antiwrinkle creams and revitalizing lipsticks--not hemlines--make news. Grooming is replacing fashion as readers' favorite obsession. The moisturizer-happy, alpha-hydroxy-savvy, SPF-conscious woman of the '90s knows that a good haircut does more for her than a new dress; a $50 night cream is a better investment than a scarf at the same price; a new shade of lipstick updates her look better than a new pair of jeans.

But cosmetics are still considered a woman's best-kept secret. Fashion editors pay the price for this little white lie. They would rather be blamed for the sluggish sales of magazines than admit that fashion, the subject of their expertise, has lost its relevance. "Fashion magazines are floundering," explains an inside source, "because editors are not trained chemists and don't know how to talk intelligently about research and development in cosmetology."

Amy Gross, editorial director of ELLE, faults the high cost of apparel for readers' lack of interest in fashion. "Clothes are so expensive," she says. "You have to plan carefully. But walk into a department store with $15 in your pocket, and you can get a treatment product with a high scientific cachet."

Allure's competitors, anxious to prove to advertisers that their readers are the most desirable audience, send around well-researched media kits--detailed profiles that compile, analyze, and interpret readers' personal habits. The typical Harper's Bazaar reader, for example, is a 35-year-old professional who takes vitamins, watches her diet, and wears jeans on the weekend; the Mirabella reader is a smart and savvy 34-year-old with no kids--she hates frills and flab; the 34-year-old Glamour reader is practical and cares about community issues. But the 31-year-old Vogue reader, a racy single with kids from a former marriage, is every advertiser's first choice because she reads--supposedly reads--the ads as carefully as the features.

Whatever female readers read in a magazine, they all scan to find the latest news. That element of newness is the raison d'etre of women's magazines and currently done best by fresh-faced Allure. Ironically, Polly Mellen, a fashion editor who went from Vogue to Allure and helped make the latter a success story, is a dynamic 68--living proof that the term "old woman" should indeed be an oxymoron. In the industry, as in the magazines themselves, women are encouraged to be changeable--and thus they're never allowed to grow old.

Veronique Vienne is a creative director and magazine writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York.