I’m a big reader and some of my reading materials are magazines. Yet over the last few years I’ve been noticing something: Magazines aren’t always good for my wallet. It’s not the subscription costs, but the advertising that’s the problem. Magazines are full of ads; it’s how they pay for their publication. I get it. But I once did a quick calculation of a well known women’s magazine and discovered that about 53% of it was ads. If you had a TV program that was 53% ads, you’d have an uproar (not that it doesn’t seem close sometimes, but anyway). But magazines get away with it.
These ads are often subtle and that’s the danger. There’s no one yelling at you as on TV, no droning voice, and there’s no pressure to buy now. Those ads are easy to tune out and dismiss as ridiculous. Many magazine ads are simply a picture of the product or even an artistic scene. You are drawn in by the pretty picture or the person who looks so like you. You look because you’re engaged with the magazine and the ad is part of it. Unlike TV, you can’t get up and get a snack when an ad appears or hit the mute button. There’s no DVR for magazines. Some ads are so wedded to the content on the nearby pages that you may not even notice that they are ads. Yet all the time these ads are working on your brain, convincing you that you need this product. Women’s magazines are the worst, but insidious advertising is in everything from business to sports publications, as well.
And it isn’t just the blatant advertisements. Sometimes the content leads you to buy. Many articles are filled with product reviews and endorsements (think the “Favorite Things” feature in O Magazine). While they may or may not be paid endorsements, you can’t help but think, “Hey, if so and so used it and it fixed a problem or improved their life, it will work for me.” Then there are the articles that discuss problems you didn’t even know you had and then encourage you to try a product to fix it. Women’s magazines are the worst at preying on our fears that we are bad mothers, wives, housekeepers, etc. They run articles about all sorts of problems, conditions, or issues that we or our families may face and then, at the end of the article, feature a little box filled with products that have successfully been used to treat these problems. Before it’s done you’re convinced that you have a big problem and that you need these products to fix it. “Where to buy,” they helpfully offer as they present a list of retailers and maybe a coupon at the end of the piece.
It isn’t just women’s magazines, either. If you read entertainment magazines, you’ve no doubt run out and bought an album, book, or video game based on some review you saw in the magazine. You may not have known that band X was releasing a new album, but now that you do you have to have it! Travel magazines present deals that you have to take advantage of. You never wanted to visit Bora Bora before but hey, there’s a great exclusive deal for readers of this magazine so off you go. Read a tennis magazine and you’ll see the hot player spouting off about how great his Brand Z racquet is for his game, so you go get one to improve your own game. A car magazine runs a story about how a product like OnStar saved someone’s life and you think, “Well, I don’t want to die,” so you go get a similar product for your car. And on it goes. Read enough magazines and you’ll find yourself “needing” all kinds of things.
I’m never sure how much of this “advertising” is paid for and how much of it is just genuine interest in a product on the part of an author or product user so I take it all with a grain of salt. In recent years this trend of excessive advertising and product placement has led me to drastically decrease the number of publications I subscribe to and buy. I like learning new things, but I get tired of “discovering” all kinds of new conditions and problems that can only be solved with certain products. I grow tired of so-called tastemakers telling me that I should love these shoes or wallets or that these books would make great gifts. I get tired of being made to feel inferior, like a failure, or out of touch just because I don’t have the latest what-not. Positive reviews that are clearly biased and paid for irk me. When every article starts to read like an ad, it’s time to rethink my reading habits.
My advice is this: Read widely, but watch out for magazines. Ask yourself if you really need whatever it is that’s being advertised. Ask yourself if you or your kids really have these problems discussed in the articles or if it’s just an attempt to sell you something. Skip over the “Buy now” boxes. Don’t let someone else’s tastes dictate what you buy. Limit the number of magazines you read to a few that give you genuine knowledge in spite of the ads. Be aware that magazines are packed with hidden ads and product placements and that your wallet is the target. Tread carefully.