Special Report

The Ads Have It

You can tell an awful lot about a magazine's readers from a magazine's ads. And so, let's meet Ms. New Republic and Mr. National Review.

By 11.24.02

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You can tell an awful lot about a magazine's readers from a magazine's ads. As a frequent magazine writer, I tend to believe the ads, and to write accordingly, no matter what fanciful reader profile some editor may spin. It's simple free enterprise. The advertisers pay to reach the readers. If they don't reach them, they don't pay anymore.

There's a reason why so many beer commercials appear on football games, after all. Have you ever watched some habitual TV show -- say, the Friday night "Star Trek" marathon -- and found yourself watching a commercial for Geritol or for Playtex Panty Liners? "Who do these people think I am?" you may wonder. Go look in your bathroom. Those people know who you are.

Let's see how this reader-viewer-advertiser profile works out in political life. Let's create, and then visit, imaginary readers -- based on the advertising messages in each magazine -- of the New Republic and National Review. TNR and NR may have finely-honed ideas in their editorial departments about who reads the magazines. What do the ads actually tell us? Who do the advertisers think are really there?

* * * * *

"You're late!" says Ms. New Republic, glaring at me from the front stoop of her brownstone row house. It's barely dawn. I start to protest that I got lost in the maze of one-way streets in this older, central section of the city, but she cuts me off. "If you want to talk, you'll have to go on my run with me. Now, stretch! I don't want you injuring yourself."

I do a few obedient toe-touchers, and Ms. New and I take off, she consulting her watch, I trying to keep up in Hush Puppies. This woman certainly can run. She's thin, like the magazine she reads, and fast and determined. She wears ragged old gym shorts, an Ivy League T-shirt, and, around her waist, a small black zipper pack in which (as she later tells me) she carries her insurance cards and her jingling half-pound ring of keys.

"I'm flying to Paris at nine-thirty," she tells me as we pound along the sidewalks. "And I've got a class to teach at seven before I go."

Ms. New, it appears, runs for half an hour a day. We finish her regular route, me stumbling after her up the steps of her house. At the front door, she unlocks three deadbolts and we tumble into a big, bright kitchen.

"Mineral water? Juice?" Ms. New asks.

"Got a beer?" I croak, thinking of a frosty commercial American brew.

Apparently not. I settle for water while Ms. New dashes upstairs for a shower. I peruse the kitchen, apparently the only occupied room on the ground floor. On the counter, a smiley-face sign declaims, "Thank you for not smoking." Cupboards and shelves are filled with a motley assortment of chunky pottery and glassware, an espresso maker, books, a set of spring-loaded bookends stuffed to overflowing with papers that look like insurance policies and brokerage statements, books, books, and yet more books -- serious books, not a speck of fiction in sight. Through an archway I see what apparently will someday be a living room. For the time being, the chamber is dark, and filled with cardboard boxes and filing cabinets.

The pipes bang as the shower shuts off upstairs. In minutes, Ms. New reappears, dressed in jeans and a baggy sweater, her red hair crackling with energy and her green eyes flashing.

Again she checks her watch. "I've really got to go," she says half- apologetically as she packs a bulky shoulder bag with passport, ticket, books, and (I presume) insurance identification. "You want to come to my class?"

I decline. But outside, as she locks her three locks, trots down the steps, and turns a key in the door of a narrow old garage, I notice how attractive Ms. New is, how energetic, and I think that I might like to see her again.

No use. The impulse to speak is scarcely born before she turns on me with those determined laser emerald eyes and says, "Don't even think about it, buddy."

* * * * *

As I ring the doorbell at Mr. National Review's house (the chimes play a sprightly, if slightly discordant, Reveille), I survey his impressive property. The house, a solid brick two-story Federal, commands vistas in every direction from the top of a hill. A Revolutionary war-vintage mortar squats on the front lawn.

"Like that view, huh?" Mr. National exclaims as he snatches open the door. "So do I. Nobody around for miles!"

As I step into the tall entrance hall, decorated with banners, pikes, and coats of arms, a throbbing voice envelops me from speakers hidden -- it seems -- everywhere. "I believe...for ev'ry drop of rain that falls..."

Mr. National is shouting something at me. I focus my stunned attention. He's twinkling at me, this youthful, silver-haired man in his gray flannel slacks and cardigan sweater, but I can't hear a word. "Know who that is?" he bellows again. "Take a guess!"

"Uh, Vic Damone?" I venture at the top of my lungs.

"William Casey!"

Mr. National disappears to adjust a knob somewhere. The baritone voice drops to background level. Mr. National reappears, grinning. "Bet you didn't know he could sing, did you?" With a wink, he hands me a cassette box, emblazoned with an American flag and the title, Songs of Belief. "Little private issue for those of us in the know," he explains, winking again. "Come on in the living room."

One is struck immediately by Mr. National's collections. His living room, lined with shelves, displays powderhorns, thimbles, decorative plates, pewter, mugs, and steins -- every one of them seemingly stamped or painted in patriotic or conservative themes. The thimbles, he says, come from his days as a charter member of Young Americans for Freedom ("a stitch in time..."). The plates ("mostly for the wife") show grand American scenes: Eagles, canyons, mountains, amber waves of grain, family farms. The coffee mugs memorialize Republican caucuses and conventions back to 1952.

I spend a pleasant, if slightly addled, afternoon with Mr. National, well fortified with Scotch ("The sun's over the yardarm someplace"), firing off muzzle loaders in the back yard and finally taking a spin in his Model T replica. Yes, we're drunk, but as Mr. National points out, we drive only on his property, not on the public roads. Getting me home again is another matter. Mr. National calls a cab and I leave my car. Next day, painfully hung over, I hear my own horn beeping insistently in my own driveway just after dawn, and find that Mr. National has driven my car back for me. So I call a cab for him. Nice fellow. A little strange, but nice.

* * * * *

All right, now let's tackle The American Prowler. But wait. We don't have any ads yet. Get on it, will ya, guys?

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About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.