Today in Tedium: We live in a world where the lines between marketing and journalism are constantly blurred. Sometimes content drives marketing; sometimes marketing drives content. Trying to find an objective middle? Now that’s hard. But there was once a time when the objective middle was much more obvious, where you knew what you were getting. So, where did the lines begin to blur? One could point to the infomercials of the ’90s or native advertising of the 2010s, but the point where things got really interesting might have come in the form of a trend that explicitly merged art and commerce in a way that ensured we’d never again be able to tear them apart. Today’s Tedium discusses the “magalog,” an unholy merger of content and sales that once dominated the marketing world. — Ernie @ Tedium
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The year that Montgomery Ward first developed its “magalog” concept. The catalog-meets-magazine, . While it was not the first to the general concept—at least one marketing expert appears to have come up with the term in the 1950s—Montgomery Ward was one of the first major companies to lean into the nomenclature in mainstream newspapers. It had its critics, however—one UPI story, with the headline “Boys Should Like Ward’s New Magalog,” compared its use of models to the spreads of Playboy. (To which I say: Just wait until you hear what Abercrombie & Fitch did with this format.)
Who made the catalog as valuable as a magazine?
In 1964, a man named Gary C. Comer had a problem. The previous year, the boating enthusiast started a company dedicated to equipment for yacht owners in Chicago. His first big idea to draw attention to his new company was to launch a catalog dedicated to the needs of boaters.
This catalog was actually useful—but not in a here’s where you buy things way. It was closer in benefit to a nautical-themed almanac, full of editorial copy designed to actually offer advice to someone on a boat or thinking about getting on one. This was useful—because, after all, Comer wanted people to actually bring the catalog with them on the boat.
There was just one problem: When he got the catalog back from the printer, it had a very significant error on it. Rather than having the name Land’s End, as was intended, it used “Lands’ End” instead. But it was too late to get around the typographical error, so Comer came to embrace it.
It turns out yachting enthusiasts aren’t pedants, because the design of the catalog, prominent typographical error and all, turned into a massive hit for the budding company, in large part because the information inside the catalog was so valuable that it became a de facto guide for the industry.
It would take a couple decades before Lands’ End would make a serious leap into the mainstream through apparel, but despite the significant changes to its customer base and product line caused by that shift, the company largely kept the thing that made them successful in the first place—the catalog that had the engaging elements of an editorial publication.
In later retellings of the history of the magalog, Lands’ End was often seen as the company that shaped the overall model.
There is a similar model in the marketing world to the magalog called custom publishing, in which a magazine is explicitly produced for a niche audience as a form of low-key marketing. I’ve written about this in the past—I noted that the creator of Channel One found success by specializing in this model—and once worked for a company that specialized in this kind of work.
They share many parallels. But the key difference between magalogs and custom magazines is the fact that the magalog ultimately exists to directly sell you something, whereas a custom publication might be trying to influence you with the goal of buttering you up for a sale. A magalog is sort of a combination of an airline magazine and Skymall, if it makes sense.
It just was built with the understanding that you’re more likely to buy something from the catalog if it’s interesting. And magalogs were built to be interesting.
But it’s also worth noting what makes a magalog not purely a catalog. A catalog is a product that might have listings of products. A magalog has some degree of journalistic interest. It might actually have reporters writing about things that are completely unrelated to the products the company sells, but whose appearance helps to set a vibe for (One example cited in a 1988 profile of the company noted that Lands’ End hired a Chicago Tribune reporter to discuss his journey home for the holidays, which seems a bit afield of what a catalog might cover.)
The magalog was built to be upscale. The problem is, they didn’t stay that way.
“We told them to think of us as a ‘channel’ through which you can program different types of apparel brands. We, like MTV, stay constant … but we’ll provide them with a constantly changing assortment of designs and brands.”
— Evan Guillemin, the chief financial officer of the tween-popular catalog brand Delia’s, discussing its approach to apparel in a 1997 Los Angeles Times article. While not quite as magalog-like as other brands—it was more photo-driven than editorial-driven—it nonetheless had a similar model (a 2019 Fast Company piece called it such), and is well-remembered today for its catalog covers, which clearly evoked teen-targeted magazines like Sassy. (This Tumblr shows you what you missed.)
Five notable examples of the magalog in action
- The Atomic Books Catalog. One of the only a few examples of a magalog I see on the Internet Archive, this indie-minded magalog mixes interesting (if dated) cultural reporting with ads for zines.
- 3Sixty. Also on the Internet Archive, this is a magazine for The Voyager Company, a firm best known for its multimedia CD-ROMs. It is absolutely loaded with content about the discs that it sells. You know this is more than a catalog because an interview with Art Spiegelman appears on page 2.
- A&F Quarterly. This magazine, a promotional vehicle for Abercrombie & Fitch, had a notably weird mix—despite being for a clothing company often targeted at high-schoolers and college students, the magalog was often filled with nudity and had to be carefully distributed to ensure it didn’t end up in underage hands. It was essentially softcore porn, except sometimes the models wore A+F clothing. (“I don’t really know what we were selling,” recalled Billions star and former model Malin Åkerman, who appeared naked in a 2003 issue with Fifty Shades of Grey’s Jamie Dornan, with photos broken up by commentary from, of all people, the philosopher Slavoj Žižek.) Presumably it ended because it was pissing everyone off.
- Le Monde d’Hermès. This long-running magazine, produced by the French design house Hermès, is basically the opposite of A&F Quarterly in every way. Unlike A&F Quarterly, it actually shows some of the products that Hermès sells, and doesn’t forget that the magazine is ultimately designed to reflect the brand. Some mid-2000s samples are on the Internet Archive, but just a warning that they’re upside down.
- huH. This one is a little on the edge between magalog and magazine, but I’d argue it fits here. A collaboration between Warner Bros. and the creators of the magazine Ray Gun, the magazine-plus-CD-sampler, part of a multi-genre strategy, was designed to get people to buy new music, particularly from Warner Bros. or the indie labels it distributed. (If you’re a fan of Ray Gun’s visual style, you’ll love this—famed 4AD in-house designer Vaughan Oliver did much of the layout for this.)
How the magalog went downmarket
Last year, I wrote a piece about print newsletters, and how they became very popular in the 1970s and the 1980s as a way to present highly niche information. Some of the newsletters were high-end and meant to speak to a specific audience. Some were low-end and built to sell a product.
But the model, in many ways, began to shift as the magalog went downmarket. With the help of increasingly less expensive graphic design software, magalogs became positioned in the role that the printed newsletter once stood.
This was highlighted by Denison Hatch, the author of the print newsletter Who’s Mailing What, wrote about magalogs in his 2001 book Million Dollar Mailings: The Art and Science of Creating Money-Making Direct Mail, a title which implies the kind of audience that he was aiming for. Hatch included a whole chapter on this topic with a great title: “That curious bastard, the magalog.”
Per Hatch, the magalog caught on among direct-mail marketers starting in the 1980s when it became clear that the print newsletters simply were no longer enough for some.
“Letters began to get longer and longer,” Hatch wrote. “Interspersed with all the benefits of subscribing to a particular publication, direct mail writers began dropping in little nuggets of information.”
Eventually the mailers moved well beyond the four pages of the print newsletter approach and evolved into something closer to magazine length, all with the goal of convincing you to sign up for a service. The design started to improve, too. But unlike the more cozy feel of a Lands’ End catalog, the goal is ultimately to wind you up to buy something bigger, like a book or service. As Hatch wrote:
As magalogs grew more sophisticated, so too did the marketing philosophy behind them. Pioneer Gary Bencivenga likens magalogs to “infomercials in print. They explain and demonstrate the product; the offer testimonials.” He added: “Magalogs remind me of the old General Foods salesman who used to go door-to-door bringing a free scoop of coffee for housewives to try. They’d say ‘try this, and I’ll be back next week to take your order.’ Magalogs serve the same purpose, by giving readers a free scoop of the product.”
This increasing sophistication drew attention outside the world of direct marketers. However, that attention was not necessarily positive. A 1993 Washington Post column by Jane Bryant Quinn took a skeptical look at the rise of the magalog. Quinn, a financial columnist who has worked in the field for decades, wrote her piece in direct response to the rise of magalogs among financial gurus.
And she didn’t like what she saw:
At first glance, magalogs often look like real personal finance magazines or newsletters, complete with tables of contents, current dates and sometimes even a cover price. The cover price is phony; magalogs aren’t offered for sale. They’re simply elaborate ads, often for subscriptions to newsletters put out by money gurus: Bill Donoghue on mutual funds, Richard Band on investments, Ken and Daria Dolan on general money topics, to mention just a few.
This column isn’t about the newsletters. Lots of people (me included) are in the business of digging up money or investment ideas. Donoghue, Band and the Dolans have passed along their share. What bothers me are the misleading claims that making fast money is a cinch (“Inevitable Wealth—Surest, Safest Ways to Build a Small Fortune in 1993-94”).
Quinn, whose column was widely syndicated, rightly drew attention to the fact that these publications increasingly are putting bad financial advice in the hands of consumers.
But this is ultimately where the magalog landed. These days, big companies are far more likely to go the digital route. Where a firm like Abercrombie & Fitch might once have put naked models in a magazine, they are much more likely today to launch a social media campaign or go for a podcast.
That means the magalog, when it does get used, tends to go in the direction of the true believers in the model, which means it lives mainly as a downstream direct marketing tool.
In my research, I found a guy still very active in promoting this model named Mike Klassen. He refers to himself as the “Magalog Guy,” and he has a whole PDF on his site offering his philosophy on magalog design.
That’s right, there is a guy out there who specializes in building magalogs—and not the kind that Lands’ End made famous. He makes direct-marketing stuff that is designed to draw in your attention and make money. No Chicago Tribune reporters will be hired to write soft-focus features on their trips home for the holidays.
“Of course, there’s no law that says we have to do things a fixed way. In fact, the magalog has a few variations including slim jims, issuelogs, and bookalogs,” Klassen wrote on his site. “But the ‘sales letter on steroids’ phrase seems to click with most direct marketers I talk to who are learning about magalogs for the first time.”
We are a long way from the fancy combination of editorial with marketing. It’s enough to make you miss the catalogs of yore.
The year that Lucky, a Condé Nast title, first went into circulation. Despite being an editorial product, it was frequently derided as a “magalog” by the press because of its extreme focus on shopping and catalog-style layout. However, despite this criticism, it ended up being perhaps the most successful magazine launch of the 2000s, with circulation topping 1 million during periods of its 15-year run as a print product. It created many imitators during its run, and was a clear sign that the magalog concept had inspired mainstream publishers.
I see a lot of parallels in the magalog story to that of the email newsletter space.
While I won’t say that a catalog like Lands’ End was built with a certain kind of ethics in journalism integrity, I do think that over time, a concept that was developed specifically as a high-end product in many cases has slowly evolved into something of a transparent commercial play in the hands of marketers more interested in getting a buck than creating a valuable, long-term relationship through marketing.
It essentially fell from high culture to low culture in the span of, like, a decade. All those newsletters that seem designed on trying to sell you something, or that seem to be explicitly built for trend-chasing? Those might have been straight attempts at upselling in the past, but because people like newsletters these days, they have to dress it up a little.
Now, don’t get me wrong—many newsletters (including today’s sponsor!) are still quite good. But there is a point where a model becomes exploited for increasingly commercial purposes, where the art of it gets replaced by efforts to increase a bottom line. I certainly don’t mean that Lands’ End is not a commercial endeavor. But they clearly had designed the product to be compelling and commercial.
I think the problem with the magalog is the same one that we see with all attempts to merge marketing with editorial—however well-intentioned things started, standards gradually slip, and not in a positive way, either. Standards need to be kept. Perhaps that’s why the magalog started in the domain of the high-end department store or mail-order firm and ended in a grifting-adjacent world.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
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