Understanding Women’s Magazines

Anna Gough-Yates, Understanding Women’s Magazines: Publishing, Markets and Readerships, London and New York: Routledge 2003. 190 pp.

The author explains the rise of the ‘glossies’, the magazines for young professional women that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, such as Cosmopolitan, Cleo and Marie Claire.

This slim book (190 pages) stands out for the breadth and depth of its content, and the freshness of its approach. I think it has useful things to say about the magazine industry, women’s place in society, and how culture and economic life interact and shape each other.

The author reviews the existing, mainly feminist literature on women’s magazines – influenced, in successive phases, by left-liberals, Althusserians, Gramscians and postmodernists – and notes that research in this field is weighted heavily toward textual analysis related to female magazine readers. Then she strikes out in an almost unexplored direction. Through a close scrutiny of the trade press covering Britain’s magazine she examines how the commercial players themselves understood and debated shifts in the industry. Their discussions are interpreted against the backdrop of the changes to economic life, culture and business management in Britain and the Western world.

She argues that the first half of the Twentieth Century was dominated by ‘Fordist’ production, in which profit was sought via economies of scale and via mass standardised production, but by the 1960s it was giving way to niche marketing and profit-making through close links to the customer’s desires.

The turn to niche markets swept aside crude demographic categorisation of consumers, towards attention to their motivations, and eventually, their lifestyle. Young professional women became targeted as a market segment with high levels of disposable income.

Once market research turned the corner into lifestyle research it became hugely important. From focus groups and other techniques a picture emerged of women as increasingly aware of and tolerantly cynical towards advertising techniques. Women also showed a desire for art, glamour and aesthetic pleasure in advertisements, feeding a trend toward high production values.

The author also paints a broader cultural and political backdrop, including the rise of a narcissistic, style-conscious and hedonistic consumerism amongst professional layers and the middle class. Within the workplace, meanwhile, changes in technology, industrial relations and the political climate combined to focus attention on the worker as an individual. Not only is their skill set a selling point in the labour market, but their personal ‘identity’ can become aligned with the company in a way that helps the business connect with customers – thus young women employed by magazines could be encouraged to take their corporate loyalty home to view themselves and their female flatmates as a means to ‘keep close’ to their target buyer and her fluid, volatile mindset.

Above all, the editor of the woman’s magazine become the crucial mediator between customer, advertiser and publisher: she traded off her ability to sense the mood of her customer. In this way the editor also mediated between the economy and culture. Even small shifts in young women’s mind-set could translate into staggering rises or falls in magazine sales. Cultural savvy had an immediate cash value.

The tradition from the mindset of mass production to customer focus was anything but smooth. Stiff traditions, misconceptions, and prejudices sailed on until they smashed into commercial imperatives. British market researchers were initially reluctant to turn from demographic statistics to lifestyle clustering ‘and what they saw as its lack of specificity and “unscientific” stress on subjectivity’; the manufacturers and their advertising agencies only grudgingly abandoned the notion of the housewife in her headscarf. Understanding the rise young professional woman, emerging into adulthood after the rise of feminism, also had to make its way through the ‘testosterone-charged’ atmosphere of the advertising agencies.

Coolly avoiding judgement throughout, the book goes beyond both narrowly commercial agendas and also the ideologies entrenched in academia, to delve beneath the surface of society and dig up real knowledge.

Colour and b+w illustrations present key magazine covers.

An addendum to the book notes the rise of celebrity culture.

The author’s argument was updated in ‘What do women want? Women, Social Change and the UK Magazine Market’, Information, Society and Justice Vol. 1 No 1, December 2007, pp 17-32.

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