MEDIA BRANDS: An increase in critical content in shopping magazines would boost reader satisfaction

Of all the trends in media that cause a steady hue and cry - and there are many - the rise of shopping magazines might yield the most complicated and provocative response.

Of all the trends in media that cause a steady hue and cry - and there are many - the rise of shopping magazines might yield the most complicated and provocative response.

Marketers, of course, salivate over titles like Condé Nast's Lucky and Cargo, with their pretty pages of layouts featuring nothing but product. There's very little copy and even less narrative, leaving the reader nothing but a carnival of clothing, gadgets, and cars. Media critics, a more sober lot, look at the phenomenon with an ambivalence that's often close to distaste. In his March 23 column in The Washington Post, the usually forgiving Peter Carlson ripped the debut issue of Cargo to pieces, calling it the "worst idea for a magazine in human history." Needless to say, neither Cargo nor Lucky is The Atlantic Monthly. But then again, they don't try to be. Rather than appealing to a literary leaning, they are meant to cater to the consumer sensibility that is an undeniable part of American culture. They feel like a natural evolution of both men's and women's general interest titles, which for years have been adding pages of unvarnished product promotion. As is, they are not much more than handsome catalogs, albeit ones that join competing brands in a similar context. This isn't to say that either magazine is a high-end, lifestyle-oriented Consumer Reports, though each would benefit from a more critical look at the products it features. The most promising parts of Cargo's first issue are sections that provide some practical commentary. For instance, there's a spread that compares cell phones by carrier, displaying clear winners and losers in a simple and eminently useful way. This kind of critical viewpoint is largely an exception, and Cargo would do well to have more of it. Not only would the readers have a sexy, worthwhile read, but marketers also would reap more benefits. While a magazine like Cargo would seem to be a product PR person's dream, one has to wonder what return a placement in its pages would yield. After all, the value of being part of a magazine's editorial content - as opposed to an ad - lies in the presence of editorial judgment, the sense in the consumer's mind that a knowledgeable journalist has given the product a proper trial. This is the essential value of PR. In Cargo, just about all of the copy around a product goes toward some endorsement and creates a bland tone and a negligible editorial voice that renders all of the endorsements largely meaningless. This need not be the future of the so-called magalogs. Perhaps as the market becomes more crowded, the titles will differentiate themselves by adopting more credible voices and competing on the quality of reporting around the product. After all, it would seem there'd be a call for a less stodgy version of Consumer Reports that, in addition to offering solid advice, follows Lucky and Cargo in revelling in the consumerism that we all engage in.

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