Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Print advertising got a ringing endorsement from the federal government last month when Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq proposed a bill that will eliminate any and all cigarette advertising from print publications.

Filter Cigarettes has been using Canadian publications to promote its "World Famous American Blend."
Didn’t they ban tobacco ads a long time ago, you ask? Pretty much, but a couple of years ago, a Supreme Court ruling on the 1997 Tobacco Act opened the doors for nicotine-pushers to run commercials in magazines and newspapers, as long as the ads didn’t have any “lifestyle” elements (i.e. no good-looking people holding cigarettes at awesome parties), didn’t specifically appeal to children (i.e. no camels), and were run in publications with more than 85% adult readers. 

But the amendment, which has passed through the house and is “awaiting senate approval” (i.e. which is basically already law), will put an end to all that.

I can’t imagine how the ads that have run in publications such as Eye Weekly, Time Canada, Toronto Life and the Georgia Straight over the last couple of years could convince anyone to take up the nasty habit. All of them basically look the same: A pack of cigarettes sitting on a dull grey background with a bunch of warnings about the dangers of smoking. If it wasn’t for the slightly hilarious tag lines like, “Come to where the flavor is,” you’d be forgiven for thinking these are anti-smoking promos.

Targeting tobacco is always an easy way for the feds to score brownie points. And this time, magazines are being forced to pay the ($1.3 million) price in foregone revenues. Never mind that cigarettes remain a legal, saleable product in Canada; never mind that the federal government collected $2.1 billion tax revenues from tobacco sales in 2007-2008; never mind that the back pages of most entertainment weeklies are filled with classifieds for “erotic massages” and “escorts”; never mind that the Ontario government produces a magazine called Food & Drink that generously promotes the consumption of alcohol.

It’s a shame our government believes we’re so gullible that it needs to censor what kinds of advertisements can and can’t run in our so-called free press. And you have to wonder, if some magazine for some reason decided to run a monthly column about the joys of smoking, would the government try to shut that down, too?

It’s funny, though: since we started covering this story, we’ve put in several calls to publishers of titles that have run the ads; not one of them has been willing to give us any on-the-record comment. Guilty much?
Monday, June 29, 2009
In his famous story, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” originally published by Harper’s magazine in 1996, David Foster Wallace, the ridiculously gifted writer who committed suicide last fall at the age of 46, detailed his experiences as a passenger on a weeklong Caribbean cruise, combining flurries of facts and keen observations about the ship’s travelers, crew, food, entertainment, etc., with piercing analysis and deep reflection on what it means to be pampered and do “Absolutely Nothing” for seven days. The result is a masterful piece of non-fiction writing, full of humour, dread and deep insights. This morning, as I was reading the essay (originally titled “Shipping Out”), one of those insights struck me as being particularly relevant to magazines, so I thought I’d share it here.

The late David Foster Wallace.
Wallace spends the eighth section of “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” deconstructing an “essay” by “famous writer and Iowa Writers Workshop Chairperson Frank Conroy” that appeared in the cruise ship brochure. Wallace objects to the essay on a number of grounds: its “tone of breathless approval,” its “constant and mesmeric references to fantasy and alternate realities and the palliative powers of pro pampering,” the way it tries to micromanage “not only one’s perceptions of a 7NC Luxury Cruise but even one’s own interpretation and articulation of those perceptions.” But mostly, Wallace objects to the “sneaky and duplicitous” way the brochure tries to present this blatant piece of advertising as editorial (or, as Wallace calls it, “art.”)

“Conroy’s ‘essay,’” Wallace writes, “appears as an insert, on skinnier pages and with different margins from the rest of the brochure, creating the impression that it has been excerpted from some large and objective thing Conroy wrote.” Of course, Conroy actually wrote the essay as a paid endorsement, but this isn’t acknowledge anywhere in the brochure.

The Canadian magazine industry has for years tried to fight against the unholy blending of “church and state.” We even have a set guidelines that magazines are encouraged to follow.  But occasionally—and particularly when times are bad—magazines will test the limits; in exchange for a quick buck, they’ll let ads slip onto covers, or into laundry room spreads, or onto transparent plastic overlays.

And then, when someone questions them on the ethics of it, the publishers and editors and salespeople who’ve crossed the line tend to shrug their shoulders and say something along the lines of, “It’s not a big deal.”

Here is Wallace’s argument for why it is a big deal. Feel free to supplant the word “essay” with “content” where appropriate:
Whether it honors them well or not, an essay’s fundamental obligations are supposed to be to the reader. The reader, on however unconscious a level, understands this, and thus tends to approach an essay with a relatively high level of openness and credulity. But a commercial is a very different animal. Advertisements have certain formal, legal obligations to truthfulness, but these are broad enough to allow for a great deal of rhetorical maneuvering in the fulfillment of an advertisement’s primary obligation, which is to serve the financial interest of its sponsor. Whatever attempts an advertisement makes to interest and appeal to its readers are not, finally, for the reader’s benefit. And the reader of an ad knows all this, too—that an ad’s appeal is by its very nature calculated—and this is part of why our state of receptivity is different, more guarded, when we get ready to read an ad.

In the case of Frank Conroy’s ‘essay,’ Celebrity Cruises is trying to position an ad in such a way that we come to it with the lowered guard and leading chin we properly reserve for coming to an essay, for something that is art (or that is at least trying to be art). An ad that pretends to be art is—at absolute best—like somebody who smiles warmly at you only because he wants something from you. This is dishonest, but what’s sinister is the cumulative effect that such dishonesty has on us: since it offers a perfect facsimile or simulacrum of goodwill without goodwill’s real spirit, it messes with our heads and eventually starts upping our defenses even in cases of genuine smiles and real art and true goodwill. It makes us feel confused and lonely and impotent and angry and scared. It causes despair.
Friday, June 19, 2009
If you want to charge readers for access to your online content, it better be a hell of a lot better than what they can get for free on The Daily Beast, The Huffington Post, Slate, Salon, Pitchfork, Politico, Gawker, TMZ, SB Nation, The Sartorialist, Epicurious, YouTube, etc. It should also probably be better than every print magazine still being sold on newsstands and more interesting and entertaining than Mad Men, Radiohead, Malcolm Gladwell and World of Warcraft.

Just a guess here: It’s probably not.

People will still pay pretty good money for well-written, well-edited, well-curated, well-targetted and/or great-looking print magazines. The Economist is just one example. But a great magazine offers more than content; it offers an experience. The problem with online, at least as far as publishers are concerned, is that the Web itself is the experience. And people already pay a hefty monthly fee for that experience.

The Scott Karps and Jeff Jarvises of the world explained the downsides of online pay walls a long time ago: Sites behind pay walls lose access to potential audiences on Google, on Facebook, on Twitter, on forums, on blogs. You can’t link to them. The online world ignores them.

In other words, they aren’t part of the Web experience.

But maybe I'm missing something. After all, everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Ann Moore to Brian Segal is talking about monetizing online content by directly charging consumers.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Wednesday, June 10, 2009
Not long ago, Masthead publisher Doug Bennet was doing some math.

He started with the figure of $5.4 billion, representing total operating revenue for Rogers Wireless in 2008.

He divided this figure by 365 and came up with the figure of $14.8 million. This is what Rogers earns per day from its Wireless operations.

Based on publicly available data, Masthead estimates that Chatelaine earned about $56 million from its print magazine last year. Chatelaine earns more money than any other Canadian title.

It takes about four days for Rogers Wireless to earn the same amount of money Chatelaine gets in a year.
About Me
Marco Ursi
Marco is the editor of MastheadOnline. His blog offers a mix of commentary, service and ideas related to Canadian magazines.

 E-mail: mursi@masthead.ca.

Twitter: @MarcoUrsi

Most Recent Blog Comment
Jen says:
Masthead, why don't you do this anymore?...
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