Magazines As Influencers. The Social Role of the American Consumer Magazines. A Blast from Mr. Magazine’s™ Past: Dissertation Entries Part 7…April 3, 2015
Magazines as Influencers
Whether or not magazines have any effect through their role in exerting influence on the public is still debatable, as is the general question of effects of the mass media on the public. Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton, two of the pioneering social scientists in this country, asked “What role can be assigned to the mass media by virtue of the fact that they exist?” Their answer was simple and brief: “It is our tentative judgement that the social role played by the very existence of the mass media has been commonly overestimated.” This does not mean that magazine owners, publishers, editors, and critics do not believe that magazines have an effect.
Roland Wolseley argued that magazines exert influence through two established policies: advertising and editorial. An example of the first can be seen in the 1968 issues of Esquire magazine. After the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the magazine adapted a policy of refusing advertising for any kind of guns. Science 83 and four other magazines, including Soldier of Fortune, have the same policy regarding cigarette advertising. On the other hand, decisions regarding the editorial policies of the magazine can be seen through the criteria editors set for their magazines. Page Knapp’s recent purchase of Geo made the news, especially with her argument that the editorial policy of the magazine will be shifted to show the brighter side of life, instead of the brutal and sorrowful side of it.
Wolseley considered this influencing role of the magazine as part of its social responsibility as well as its social effect. Although he believed that this role has been accomplished largely “through the magazine content rather than organized action,” Wolseley stressed that three departments have been influential: advertising, editorial, and promotion.
The above information was written in 1983 and is taken from a portion of my dissertation when I was at the University of Missouri-Columbia where I obtained my doctorate in journalism. And while the majority of the material still holds true, things have changed drastically in some areas.
It’s a given fact that we rely on the media for news and facts that it deems important for us to know. This was true when the first piece of information was ever printed by a magazine or newspaper in ink and it still holds true today. However, a few things have changed. Where most of us trusted the news media and other information outlets implicitly; a few bad seeds have caused us to feel that trust was misplaced. We’re a little more wary and cautious these days.
With as much power as the media holds over public opinions and ideas, to say that magazines do not have a significant influence on society, maybe even more so today than in 1983 with the realms of cyberspace at its fingertips, is not only an understatement, it’s ridiculous.
Let’s compare a few occurrences with those listed in 1983. First, Esquire was mentioned with its 1968 ban on gun advertisements in the magazine due to the tragic assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy. By banning weapons ads in the magazine, Esquire was making a statement that couldn’t be ignored and wasn’t.
In January 2007, then Vice-President Dick Cheney was featured on the cover of Texas Monthly holding a smoking shotgun pointed out toward the reader with the cover line: If you don’t buy this magazine, Dick Cheney will shoot you in the face. The magazine was playing off the famous 1973 National Lampoon cover of a hand holding a gun at a dog’s head with a similar cover line and using the Vice-President’s hunting accident where he shot a colleague in the face as the basis for the spoof.
Questions had already been raised regarding the shooting and media’s satirical portrayals could certainly have been said to ‘stir the pot.’ Did it influence anyone’s opinion about the shooting? Maybe no one can say for sure, but it’s a given it opened up a few heated discussions about whether it was in bad taste or good fun.
The second point of interest mentioned in my 1983 dissertation was several magazines’ policies on no cigarette ads. Eliminating teen-smoking and the overall ill effects of tobacco played an important role in how people saw tobacco products then and now, compared to eras like the 1940s and 1950s where everyone smoked and it was considered cool.
A computer-generated photo on a 2011 Newsweek cover of Princess Diana and Kate Middleton walking side by side was considered in very bad taste by some people who saw it. The representation showed the women dressed very similarly, with their heads inclined toward each other as if they were talking. The issue was geared toward what would have been Diana’s 50th birthday that year.
The article inside touted author and then-editor, Tina Brown’s take on what Diana’s life might have been like had she lived. At the time, The London Telegraph called the cover photo “ghoulish” and gave Brown the moniker “Newsweek’s grave robber.”
Saying that article and that cover had no influence over public opinion about what people consider a sacrilege would be like saying the 2006 Rolling Stone cover of Kanye West, with a crown of thorns upon his head and obviously depicting Jesus at the time of crucifixion, had no impact on what people deemed appropriate and inappropriate.
Magazines have played many roles over the years when it comes to society and the humans who occupy it, but none more so than that of influencer. In fact, the next time you pick up that bottle of shampoo at the store or decide not to buy that cut of meat because it’s just not healthy for you; odds are it was a magazine ad or article that influenced your decision.
Until next time when Mr. Magazine™ talks about magazines as Informers…