I usually keep a subscription to at least one magazine, and this year, Haper’s magazine is my main squeeze. Three issues in, I’m convinced that it’s everything I’ve ever wanted in a magazine (though I said that when I took The Believer, my former honey). Harper’s is sophisticated, it’s lefty, it has a column called the “Anti-Economist,” it has Thomas Frank’s “Easy Chair” column, it pays attention to Chicago, you can’t find most of it online, it costs $15 a year, and its layout is bare bones. This last thing is probably my favorite: In every issue, there are multiple spreads with nothing but text to look at. In 2014, that’s hard to picture. No photos, no ads, just some of the better non-fiction in circulation.
But when there are ads—holy hell! How did one of the most respected periodicals in the country pair up with some of the most nutty and unselfconscious ads in print? My favorite is the Caravan guided tours ad that appears in every issue:
First of all, the captions. The top photo is indeed a photo of Manuel Antonio Park. The toucan is also most likely a Keel-billed Toucan. But the phalanx of women holding binoculars is not the Cano Negro. And that is not a photo of a ‘rainforest hike.’ In fact, that is a slightly out-of-shape Caucasian male in a safari hat with some banana leaves behind him.
Then there’s that flattering quote underlining the photomontage as if it were another caption. It’s the perfect combination of testimony and authority: Client. Lucky for Caravan, an anonymous person found the perfect words to describe the perfect getaway, and someone got it on record. Seriously, though—they couldn’t find a tourist who would give their name?
A little further down in the ad, flanking the fifth page of a great piece about the Air Force and civilian casualties, Caravan presents us with another blushing look at their time-tested marketing techniques:
A FREE brochure? That kind of offer sells itself—or would, if it wasn’t already free. But just in case, they’ve put their mascot Toucan on the hustle. As you can see, Caravan was compelled to trademark their mascot. It was only a matter of time before someone else had the idea to synthesize a Keel-billed Toucan and the above-pictured Caucasian Tourist (they even have the same cheek-dimples!).
A colorful and animated character, Toucan also has something to say: “Call now for choice dates!” But what I don’t understand is why Caravan needed their mascot to say that. Of all the things that Caravan’s Toucan has uttered, why did they pick such a dud?
This isn’t the only advertisement in Harper’s that looks like it was designed by a Baby Boomer using their first computer. There is one for a lecture series DVD that invites us “to meet Henri Nouwen (1932-1996), one of the most influential and profound spiritual thinkers of our time.” Don’t worry, I’ve never heard of the guy either. The design has some over-statement problems, too. It’s basically just a photo of Nouwen’s “official biographer” surrounded by bolded and unbolded text.
I sound like a jerk, I know. All smugness aside, here’s what I think about these ads. I kinda like them. Compared to the highly-refined Superbowl commercials that are represent the pinnacle artistic achievement of the country’s most talented sell-out artists, these Mom-and-Pop designs are endearing. They’ll spend thousands of dollars to get their ad into the pages of a top magazine, yet they seem to want to make their ads themselves.
This says something about Harper’s. Michael Wolff wrote on the Guardian in December that “you can’t have an important looking magazine without important (or at least expensive looking) advertising.” And Harper’s proves that wrong. The consistency of the magazine’s strong writing speaks for itself—the ads are an afterthought, as if the editors were apologizing for the distraction and trying to minimize it. Wolff goes on to say that a text-heavy publication “seems old fashioned, page after page of type. It needs to be read and that seems, I believe to almost everybody, exhausting.”
My own subscription habits, on the contrary, are moving in the opposite direction. Give me a cover and some pages of text. If I want ads, I’ll go online. But I like to have at least 100 pages of contemporary content in print every month, a sort of refuge from the screen, built of paper, lamplight, and a couch.
And if there’s gonna be ads in that refuge, it’s best if the advertisers’ acuity is unthreatening.