(NOTE: This is a retooling of a blog post—not on this blog—from July 2017.)
Understanding Trade Advertising
A few years back I was trying to write an essay on the precipitous, seemingly never-ending decline and decay of TIME magazine. I was going to call it The Long, Grueling Downward March of TIME. The featured illustration would be a mockup of a title card from the March of Time newsreels, which of course were a big deal in the 1930s and 40s. Back when my average reader was growing up.
But it was a difficult topic to encompass, and I let myself get sidetracked by a curious side-story to the whole thing: magazines’ trade advertising, a now all-but-vanished industry.
Forty to sixty years ago you’d see ads at commuter railroad stations, and on the bulkheads (or whatever you call ’em) of the passenger cars on the New Haven RR, the Long Island RR, the NY Central’s Harlem and Hudson Lines, the PRR’s Paoli Local on the Philadelphia Main Line, and probably the Erie Lackawanna out in New Jersey. Railroads had individual names then, and they carried a lot of trade advertising for newspapers and magazines.
FORBES: Capitalist Tool.
PARADE is the Sunday Giant.
Those ads weren’t aimed at potential readers of Forbes or, Lord knows, Parade. No, these ads were aimed at ad buyers, and perhaps the sales people (or “account executives”) at the agencies too.
TIME magazine had perhaps the most elaborate trade advertising campaign of the late 60s, helmed by Young & Rubicam. You’d see a half-dozen, maybe even a dozen, poster ads out on the train platform, all nearly identical mockups of a TIME cover, only with a different upscale TIME advertiser featured in each one. The copy would go something like: “TIME: Where Braniff Flaunts It.” (Which as everyone knew was a reference to the big double-truck ads from Wells Rich Greene for Braniff Airlines, “When You’ve Got It, Flaunt It!,” showing Andy Warhol chatting with Sonny Liston—or something equally odd.)
So as you walked down the train platform, or glanced out the windows at Greens Farms or Bronxville, circa 1969, you’d get the message. Over and over. TIME was where the smart money went. TIME was where you wanted to advertise high-ticket items to upscale customers. Braniff. MG 1100’s. Brooks Brothers suits. Johnny Walker Black. Lucchese boots.
Actually they never featured Lucchese. Ad buyers on the New Haven line in 1969 wouldn’t have understood that. Johnny Black they would understand, so if you were handling the campaign for Glenlivet, you’d see the outdoor ads and find out that Johnny Black scotch had two full-page TIME insertions per month for the past year, while Glenlivet didn’t have any. Ergo, “maybe we should make TIME part of our media buy!”
A subtler message in that TIME trade-ad campaign was that TIME was a solid and trusted advertising environment. Time Inc. was a crack outfit, right up there with—as they used to say forty or fifty years ago—the Marine Corps, the Catholic Church, and McKinsey & Co. All of which may be well and thoroughly pozzed today, but none quite so badly as TIME, which was already in sorry shape by the 1980s when they started putting Madonna on the cover…instead of painterly portraits of Everett Dirksen or the DuPont executive who gave us Corfam.
I’ll save my TIME eulogy for another time and place. Because now I’m going to move along to another classic bit of trade advertising from the same era, one that didn’t claim upscale status at all, in fact reveled in being the vademecum of shopgirl and secretary. That was Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan, an aggressively low-middlebrow sex-and-makeup rag that came out of the Hearst Building on West 57th Street.
Or, the Transitional ‘Rabbit, Run’ Era of Sex Politics
Once upon a time, back in the 1920s and 30s, Hearst’s Cosmopolitan had been a popular middlebrow offering along the lines of the Saturday Evening Post, specializing in longish-form fiction (Agatha Christie, Irvin Cobb) and columns by name-brand celebrities (Gene Tunney, Amelia Earhart). This was all long gone by the 1960s, when editor Brown wrote Sex and the Single Girl, and revamped the magazine to exalt working-girl licentiousness. “Career-girl sophistication,” Helen Gurley Brown might prefer to call it but, as I say, the magazine’s target audience was largely secretaries and shopgirls.
If the magazine had had an iconic symbol, it would be what doctors used to call a “pessary.” That is to say, a contraceptive diaphragm, less formally known as a “flying saucer,” according to John Updike. A round, flexible pink thing you stuck up your quim when you’d been to the singles bar and found yourself entering into a one-night-stand. (The you in this directive is female, needless to say.) Yes, a “birth control” device. It lived in a clamshell case in your top bureau drawer, or maybe at the bottom of your handbag, if you were out on the prowl. Often kept alongside some spermicidal cream or unguent. That’s enough detail.
I recall Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, in Updike’s Rabbit, Run, getting really pissed off when the girl he’s getting lucky with (part-time whore, as it turned out) gets up and runs off to the bathroom just as they’re getting started. “You’re gonna put on a flying saucer?” yells Harry. Harry hated the obviousness, the crassness of the whole thing: approaching sex or “lovemaking” as a mechanical necessity, an ugly physical function. You know, like going to the utility closet and taking out a Fleet Enema because you ate a lot of turkey stuffing at Thanksgiving and you’re impacted and you’ll have huge difficulty taking a dump. Not exactly an arousing bit of foreplay.
The novel is set in the late 1950s. Perhaps 1959, as Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, is age 26, just like author Updike, born 1933 in Reading, PA, which is called “Brewer” in the novel. Early in the book, the Mickey Mouse Club show is on TV and Head Mouseketeer Jimmy Dodd is going on smarmily about proverbs and ethical living. “Know thyself,” he tells them. “Know Thyself, a wise old Greek once said.” I last read Rabbit, Run about 1969 or 70, and this is the kind of stuff that sticks with me. Mouseketeers and diaphragms.
Today, pop social-historians will talk about birth control and tell you, “Diaphragms were totally passé after The Pill came in.” Not quite, hon. They were the go-to protection at least through most of the 1970s. Most of us weren’t going to do The Pill. Hormones? All those side-effects? Your breasts would swell. It might ruin your fertility long-term (though that risk wasn’t clearly understood or enunciated back in the day). Finally: maybe you won’t even have sex this year. And meantime the diaphragm’s waiting safe and sound in your bureau drawer.
‘Female Empowerment,’ Sort Of
And now we circle back to Cosmopolitan, which my social peers and I certainly never touched. But with all of its coarseness, Cosmo put down a marker. Getting laid a lot in the 1960s and 1970s became a sign of Female Empowerment, a term that did not yet exist, but should have. And here is where Cosmo led the parade.
But then, during its high-water mark in those late 60s, early 70s, Cosmo‘s man-catching “empowerment” ethos started facing down competition from a much fresher and weirder bit of popcult—Women’s Liberation! Women’s Lib ideology operated in much the same way as Cosmo‘s—you were supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about your private parts, and you were to strive for independence and assertiveness. Except man-chasing and singles bars were not really in the picture. A baby might occasionally turn up, but he usually had no visible father.
Cosmo seldom directly addressed this pop-culture war in its pages, so far as I know. Ms. magazine, its opposite number on the Women’s Lib team, wouldn’t really enter the fray until 1972. And when it did, Ms. never acknowledged Cosmopolitan either. You knew it wasn’t Cosmo, because it wasn’t chuggy-jam full of makeup ads, and it didn’t have questionnaires and tips about sex and dating. One could argue that Ms. did take swipes at Cosmo in a very oblique way: it ran a page or section at the back called “No Comment,” displaying perversely funny instances of “sexism” in advertising and media. “Sexism” here usually meant using a buxom, glamorous female model to sell t-shirts or cornflakes or limousine services. In other words, precisely the sort of come-on that Cosmopolitan put on its cover month after month.
So Cosmo readers and Women’s Libbers/Ms. editors inhabited two different universes and neither side ever acknowledged the other. I don’t recall anyone ever remarking on this paradox. Even though both camps were selling a Career Girl persona that liked to imagine itself as “Fun, Fearless, Female”—to use a 1990s Cosmopolitan slogan. But the rivalry really wasn’t between two magazines. At its root was a fierce culture war that neither could openly discuss. And this made for many amusing, unacknowledged ironies.
Ms. featured actress Marlo Thomas as a contributor in the early years, mainly in a running feature about children’s self-actualization and sex-role ambiguity. These bits were later collected in a book called Free to Be…You and Me. Now, Marlo Thomas was mainly known as the Danny Thomas daughter who landed the title role in a 1960s TV sitcom, That Girl. In the sitcom, Marlo’s character, Ann Marie, was all about chic clothes, flip-hairdo, mascara-and-eyeliner, and being man-hungry and marriage-focused (though there weren’t really any marriageable men around, given that then men in Marlo’s social circles consisted mainly of Jews, elderly divorcés, and homosexuals).
In other words, this That Girl sitcom actress who was now playing on the Women’s Lib team and was featured in Ms,. was mainly famous for playing a character who was the veritable template of the Cosmo Girl. As the ad copy went (I’m paraphrasing from memory), “I’m 23, I’m a Gemini, I love to dance and water-ski and listen to semi-classical music. I raise pedigreed longhair dachshunds, I’m fresh and funny, and I make a great chocolate fondue. I guess you could say I’m That Cosmopolitan Girl!”
In the 1970s, a trade-ad version of this “Cosmo Girl” copy was refined into a text-heavy print advertisement that might take up a whole page in the New York Times, or a four-foot poster in a subway concourse. This copy had even more italics, with the final tagline, “If you want to reach me, you’ll find me reading Cosmopolitan.” The Cosmo Girl campaigns wee widely enough recognized that in 1973 Donald Barthelme published a postmodern comedy takeoff in The New Yorker, “That Cosmopolitan Girl.”
Helen Gurley Brown believed that she and Cosmo had helped to pioneer the Women’s Liberation movement, but attempts to express this always looked like comical misfires. Much like the Virginia Slims cigarette print ads and TV commercials of the early 70s. (“You’ve come a looonnnng way, baby!”)
For cigarette advertising, “women’s rights” meant that dames could now smoke skinny 100mm cigarettes in public. For Cosmopolitan, it was all about young women being actively sexual and maybe promiscuous—we’ve got the Sexual Revolution now, baby, and The Pill! This was supposed to put them on a par with men, whatever that meant. Or something. Why they would want to be on a par with men remained the great unanswered question.
Why Ms. Failed
A great irony about Ms. magazine is that it was largely conceived and funded by Clay Felker, Gloria Steinem’s colleague, friend and founder of New York magazine. Clay, a Missouri boy who was once associate editor of Esquire (where he first knew Steinem) made New York an instant hit in the the late 60s. New York magazine was the resurrection, or continuation, of the New York Herald-Tribune‘s Sunday supplement, edited by Clay himself. Tom Wolfe, among others, had made his bones writing for the Sunday-supplement New York in the early 60s. When the Trib died in 1966-1967 as the result of a massive and destructive newspaper strike, Clay Felker and some of his edit staff and stable of writers quickly launched the glorious new standalone New York magazine. Clay thought a female Esquire should be the coming thing. Months before Ms. was officially launched, he promoted a mini pilot issue, stapled into a December 1971 issue of New York. Its bloodline was apparent: no stridency, but hipness and irony.
Clay knew magazine content and design, but not the business side. Nor did he fully perceive that Gloria and the other Women’s Libbers running Ms. magazine not only did not know the business side, they were downright hostile to business and advertising in general. Ms. could have sailed high forever had it taken ads from Lancôme and Bergdorf-Goodman, but it just did not want advertising for cosmetics or fashion, or most female-oriented advertising in general. I suppose they were afraid of looking like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, and they had it in their heads that fashion and cosmetics were the problem, the enemy of Women’s Libbery. This led to one of the greatest paradoxes and fiascos ever, in magazine publishing. It’s as though Esquire were to reject ads for sports cars and golf clubs and scotch.
So Ms. was a shoestring, vanity operation from the beginning and became less and less viable with the passing years. This doesn’t need to be fatal for a magazine with a mission. National Review was a money-losing operation from the start, but it eventually learned it could shore up its finances by such devices as selling tickets to $5000 celebrity-speaker cruises. But that option wasn’t a likely one for the Ms. audience. Moreover, as time went on, the Ms. editorial content had less and less to do with its original core target audience (middle-class white American women) as the magazine started to fill up its pages with all sorts of extraneous topics, about foreigners and politics and People of Color, usually slanted from a progressive-Left angle. No more wit, hipness, irony. This seemed inevitable; there’s a limited amount of subject matter directly relevant to Women’s Libbery, or even that amorphous, shifting cluster of grievances called “feminism.”
I briefly worked for a strange website called Women’s Media Center. The content had almost nothing to do with broadcasting media, or with normal American women. About every featured personage was a “person of color” or Jewish (oh wait, I do see Jane Fonda someplace), and the topics under discussion were things like, “How Can We Get More Latina Anchorwomen?” I look at this website now, and it is still that way. Any outlet that makes its mission and purpose the promotion of a “progressive” ideology will inevitably go down this furious, ineffectual path. Likewise, Ms. magazine still exists, but only as a website and a print magazine that reportedly publishes quarterly. It carries no ads at all.
Curiously enough, there was another attempt in the 1980s to launch an “Esquire for Women” called New York Woman, published initially by the Esquire parent company. Witty and excellently designed, and free of strident Leftism and Libbery, it was advertising-friendly but couldn’t pull high-ticket ads because it never got much visibility or circulation, or a celebrity editor, or more than the vaguest idea of who its target audience was supposed to be. It didn’t even get the kick-start that Clay Felker’s publicity nous, and Gloria Steinem’s celebrity, were able to give Ms. in the early days. It lasted about six years.
Unseen Adversaries, Inchoate Theories
As I said before, the culture war between the Cosmo camp and Ms. faction was seldom acknowledged because the two sides were virtually oblivious to each other’s existence. One was firmly rooted in a culture of working girls who used sexual wiles and gossip to gain power. It didn’t start with the 1950s. Early 1930s “Pre-Code” films are littered with instances of Jean Harlow, Clara Bow, Barbara Stanwyck sleeping their way to the executive suite. And not to be an executive, mind you!
The other faction was rooted in journalism, academia, and abstruse theorizing about social dynamics and sex roles. One of their leading tenets was that sex roles are not innate but are learned. According to Socialization Theory, people were born as tabulae rasae but were socialized to be male or female. Presumably, if you’re an only child with neglectful parents who don’t socialize you, you get to end up as neither sex. This bizarre theory was propounded as serious feminist sociology and psychology fifty years and and is still advanced today, in many a cultural-marxist fever-swamp.
Hang out with progressive self-describe feminists on social media, and you quickly see arguments about how Obnoxious Male Behavior is the result of Socialization. You know—how they send 5-year-old boys off to Socialization Camps, sort of like Parris Island, where they have to climb the water tower and go, “This is my rifle, This is my gun…” and other sorts of hazing and bullying.
Other persistent myths and conspiracy theories from those days include the notion that Men oppress Women, and that this is because of a Patriarchy Culture that must be dismantled. Actually you didn’t hear so much about Patriarchy back the old days; that term seems to have been dusted off and shined up in recent years because of the rise of critical theory in academia. Patriarchy theories couldn’t get much traction In the 1960s and 1970s because back then most people were still conversant with a social culture in which most people were expected to get married, and have babies, and it was generally the female parent who ruled the roast. (Yes, the word is roast, not roost.) If you alter that arrangement—take the mother out of the picture—you have the basis for a situation comedy, because having the father stand in for both parents is intrinsically humorous. Even in savage jungle tribes, it’s the old females, not the silverback males, who demand that the tiny young females be brought before them to be de-clitorized and de-labialized, with their vaginas sewn up. Ain’t Matriarchy a gas?
The social and cultural divide between the two camps could never be breached. Many a teenage girl of this era affected a distaste for fine clothes and grooming, lest she be mistaken for a dim-bulb Cosmo reader. Back in the 1970s, did you see a lot of girls at Smith or Mount Holyoke going around in cargo pants or white painters’ overalls, with scraggly, unwashed hair in the 1970s? Well, if you didn’t see them, that’s how it was. The fear of Cosmo-world propelled some of them into disheveled lesbianism, or performative lesbianism, or at least priggish spinsterhood.
It’s the same mentality that today makes otherwise intelligent women believe that the television series of The Handmaid’s Tale (based on a satirical dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood) describes an actual, possible future in which women will somehow be enslaved and oppressed by the likes of Amy Coney Barrett and Brett Kavanaugh. It’s a delusional way of thinking that makes absolutely no sense, but is useful for mindless sloganeering, in a sense Orwell would have understood. Better to die single and childless, many a middle-class, well educated young woman must have mused in the last fifty-odd years, than to focus on Hunting for a Man—as though I were a Five Towns JAP or a Cosmo floozy!
Nevertheless I tend to think that Cosmopolitan did far more to ruin relations between the sexes than Ms. or mainstream feminism ever could. It made the heterosexual dating game tawdry and distasteful. It made catching a spouse (and seeking a home and family) something anyone should sneer at, if her ambitions were anything above the level of stewardess or cocktail waitress. And thus we raised a whole generation of girls, women—under this pervasive yet unnatural mindset.
I recall, in the 80s, being asked by strangers if I were seeking a husband or looking forward to raising a family. I would go into an absolute cringe. What did they think I was? The sort of bimbo who read Cosmopolitan?