What Can Magazine Covers Teach Us About Ourselves?

Just a quick little post today about “trigger” words used to grab our attention.

I’ve spent the past 3 months collecting keywords on the covers of several popular men’s and women’s magazines, most with a focus on fitness.  Here’s what really matters to us, according to marketing:

MagazineCoversWomen

I’ll bet you can guess which is which.

MagazineCoversMen

A couple of interesting things about magazine covers,

  1. Men’s magazines used the word “sex” ONCE. ONE TIME. TOTAL. As you can see, women’s magazines were WAY more obsessed with all derivatives of the word.
  2. Men’s magazines in general used about 1/2 as many words as women. Don’t really know how to read into that one.

An additional observation was that the models on the covers for men’s magazines were predominantly athletes or former athletes with a few actors or performers in the mix. Women’s magazines had ONE athlete on the cover (Maria Sharapova), the rest were models, actresses and singers.

Once again, we come back to a pivotal questions: Are marketers simply giving us what we want, or are we being force-fed these desires?

I’m going to take a stab at this and say it’s a little bit of both.  Here are a few things that are innate in human nature:

  • Desire for sex, and thus to be sexually appealing.
  • High social status, to be on level with or above our peers.
  • Safety for ourselves and our friends and family.
  • To quickly understand and organize the world around us.

Marketers didn’t need to make any of these up – most everyone is born with these desires.   Where they come in is evident in the keywords:

  • Sex appeal for men equals having lots of muscle, low body-fat and to a smaller extent strength.  Sex appeal for women equals being as small as possible with very little muscle (but not NO muscle), minimizing signs of aging such as wrinkles, cellulite or thinning / dull hair.  These are by far the most popular terms used above.
  • Social status means owning expensive things, having an advanced career or having stronger ‘willpower,’ ‘work ethic’ or knowing things your peers don’t which manifests itself in a ‘better’ body than they have.  (Recall I’m focusing on the health and fitness industry here.  Obviously for different subjects this will manifest in other ways)
  • Safety for ourselves, friends and family is signaled with claims to prevent cancer, prevent obesity-related diseases and being overall highly concerned about health.
  • A quick and easy understanding of the world is shown through words like “secrets,” “quickly,” “by tonight,” “easy,” “slash,” etc.  These are the most commonly used words behind those for sex appeal.

So what can we learn from this?  Well here are my takeaways:

  1. Sex appeal can mean so many different things to humans.  Our brains can be much more complex than “skinny waist and big boobs,” despite what many an internet troll will tell you.  A potential mate’s desire to have sex with you is not always derived from how conventionally “sexy” you are.  But damn if it isn’t easy to sell something if you assure someone it will boost their appeal to potential mates.  This also ties into a desire for a quick and easy understanding of the world.  No cellulite = sex!  Big muscles = sex!  IT’S THAT EASY!
  2. Who gives a shit about how wealthy or perfect your peers perceive you to be?  Yoga pants are yoga pants, ice cubs are ice cubes.  You know who you are.  I know, that’s not a very helpful or scientific observation, but I’m not going to claim to be an expert on our desire for social standing.  Someone else out there has probably written something much more insightful.  If you know of any, let me know and I’ll link it here.
  3. Exploiting this desire is one of my least favorite tactics.  I know, cancer is brutal, terrifying and unfair.  Its existence causes us pain, fear and anxiety for good reason.  But how much does the latest article (about how in an observational study based on self-completed questionnaires, researchers found a small correlation between diet coke consumption and breast cancer) ACTUALLY help?  Does it REALLY deserve the title “The SECRET Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know about stopping cancer in its tracks!” or “Ground-breaking new study finds potential cure for cancer!” ?  NO.  THIS HELPS NO ONE.
  4. Us humans are fantastic at identifying patterns.  Unfortunately, when we see a pattern we also automatically assume it means something significant.  So we read about a study that says obesity rates have increased as carbohydrate intake has increased – and now that you think about it, you really don’t eat very much meat, just a lot of bread and candy.  The brain sees these threads and leads you to conclude carbohydrates = fat.  Unfortunately it missed the part where you and the public at large were just increasing your overall caloric intake.  Whoops.

Anyway, that’s a little bit of a rant from me today.  Hope you found those keywords as interesting as I did!  I may try to keep this up for a year – I think that would give a better perspective.

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About katwhit

Coffee shop blogger by day, personal trainer by night. My interests include lifting weights, puppies, teaching people how to lift weights and dogs. Head on over to my blog and you'll find: reviews of best-selling diet books in extensive detail, critiques of various fitness publications, and even the occasional rant on the latest TV fitness segments.
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3 Responses to What Can Magazine Covers Teach Us About Ourselves?

  1. I enjoyed this post. We all should be very careful about not comparing ourselves to the people on the covers of magazines. We often think I wish I had that body or a body like so and so. What we often forget is that those people have all the free time in the world to be in shape. They have personal trainers, and people to help them with their diet daily. Once I came to this conclusion I stopped comparing myself to other men.

    • katwhit says:

      Thank you so much for the feedback Jared, I’m glad that you liked it!

      And I agree – I mean it definitely still takes hard work to get to where they are, no doubt. But not only is it not a realistic standard for many people, it’s an unnecessary one as well. And they say comparison is the thief of joy!

      • Welcome!

        I totally agree with you! They have to put in the time and effort to look the way they do. You don’t wake-up and look that way. I need to lose some weight and want more energy, but I don’t need to look like a dude on Men’s Health to reach my goals.

        Love the saying and I’ll have to steal it, and I might give you the credit! 😛

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