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No Sacred Cows  
Toby Young
Friday 24th October 2003

Why Spitzer Should Target the Glossy Posse


After Eliot Spitzer's successful crusade against the securities industry, what should he do for an encore? Take down some corrupt politicians? Go after the mafia? Too easy, I say. Why not take aim at the most powerful cabal in America? I'm talking about the editors of glossy, New York magazines.

Tales of their legendary excess abound. For instance, Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, is rumoured to employ an interior decorator who's sole responsibility is to rearrange the photographs on her office wall every few months. Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, brought in his own architect to design the magazine's workspace at Conde Nast's headquarters in Times Square. The architect certainly got his priorities straight. Carter's own office is the size of a squash court.

If I was the Attorney General I'd begin by looking at the cosy relationship between these magazines and their advertisers. Just as Henry Blogget recommended the stocks of certain companies without disclosing that they were clients of Merrill Lynch, so glossy magazines frequently endorse particular brands without making it clear that those same brands pay to advertise in their pages.

Take the relationship between Ralph Lauren and Harpers Bazaar. In Genuine Authentic, a recently published biography of the designer, the author Michael Gross describes an episode in 1997 when Lauren stopped advertising in the magazine because it printed an unflattering photograph of him. The only way Harpers Bazaar was able to persuade him to change his mind was by putting Courtney Love on the cover of its September issue accompanied by the line: "Courtney Love wears Ralph Lauren."

"Designers the world over not only expect but demand high-profile placements--in other words, prominent inclusion in what are called 'editorial' fashion spreads--in exchange for their advertising dollars," says Gross. "In the world of fashion-fed glossies, there's no separation between church and state."

Sometimes, the efforts made by big brand names to influence the editorial staff are completely transparent. Beauty editors, for instance, receive so many free products they hold yard sales in the conference rooms every two weeks where everything is on sale for a dollar. If you thought the competition for bargains at Century 21 was fierce, think again.

Those lucky enough to work in the fashion departments of glossy magazines are literally deluged with freebies every day, some of them worth a great deal of money. At Vanity Fair, where I worked for two-and-a-half years, I once stumbled across a screwed-up ball of paper outside the office of Elizabeth Saltzman, the magazine's fashion director. "Dear Elizabeth," it began, "a while back, the Diamond Information Center presented you with a diamond solitaire necklace..." Earlier this year, the fashion director of another glossy magazine had her wrist slapped when she was caught trying to sell a couture coat she'd been sent by Channel on eBay. The floor was $150,000.

At Christmas time, glossy magazines have to hire extra staff to deal with the huge volume of free stuff flowing into their offices. In 1996, the CEO of Condé Nast, Steve Florio, received so much booty he had to hire three Lincoln Town Cars to transport it back to his house. We're talking hand-made suits, cases of wine, sets of golf clubs--not your usual tchotchkes. The Lincolns sailed off down Madison Avenue like Spanish galleons packed with treasure.

Is such petty corruption really worthy of Spitzer's attention? So what if glossy magazine editors give favourable coverage to those who cross their palms with silver? Presumably, the readers aren't so intoxicated by the smell of all those perfume inserts they actually mistake the puff pieces for proper journalism. They know that the reason the devil wears Prada is because Prada is one of her magazine's biggest advertisers.

Well, up to a point. Readers of Vogue can go through any issue and detect a correlation between the number of advertising pages a designer has bought and the number of editorial mentions he or she gets. But are they aware that the people who work for glossy magazines routinely lie about what cosmetic products the fabulosi in their pages are wearing? Hair stylists and make-up artists will frequently claim to have used such and such a product simply because the manufactures have put them on the payroll, when in fact they've used something quite different. In the industry, this practice is referred to as "selling a credit".

"To me, the biggest bullshit is when fragrances are mentioned in photo credits," says an ex-Conde Nast fashion editor. "I've literally been present at thousands of photo shoots and I've never once seen a stylist whip out an atomiser and spray a model with perfume."

If the readers of glossy magazines knew just how unreliable the editorial content is why would they bother with them? As with stock analysts, it's only because the editorial staff are believed to possess some modicum of integrity that their endorsement of a particular product means anything.

One of the benefits of Spitzer's clean-up of the securities industry is that the SEC now requires analysts to sign a piece of paper certifying that the opinions expressed in their research reports aren't influenced by anything other than their own, independent judgement. Would it be practical to ask the editorial staff of glossy magazines to sign something similar? "I hereby declare that when I say that argyle socks are 'in' this season no part of my compensation was, is, or will be, directly or indirectly, related to that specific recommendation."

During the time I spent at Condé Nast, not a single employee would have passed that test--myself included. Mr Spitzer, if you're reading this, I want you to know that I'm willing to testify. You can even subpoena my argyle socks.

Of course, it's unlikely that the Attorney General will go after the glossy posse. Why would a New York politician risk antagonising a powerful section of the media a year before a gubernatorial bid? In any case, there's very little upside. Vogue may have received over $100 million in advertising revenue last year, but the industry as a whole couldn't afford to pay a $1.4 billion fine.

The only beneficiaries would be the readers and who really cares about them? In the absence of Seigfried and Roy paying a visit to Manhattan, these fat cats won't disappear from their gilded cages any time soon.

The Wall Street Journal

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