It was strange to see a seminar on "Generation X: Media Myth or New Reality?" listed in the catalog for this year's Folio: Midwest show, a cracklingly dry four-day conference at the Sheraton that purports to teach magazine professionals how to run magazines. In light of the seminar's description--"It's 41 billion [sic] strong and spending over $200 billion annually. Here's how to get your share of the 18-28 Generation X market"--it was stranger still to see the Baffler's Tom Frank listed as a panelist. The Baffler has become known for its unsparing denunciation of attempts to define and market to young people. Was Frank about to do a bizarre about-face and speak, in the catalog's words, on "how to better appeal to this lucrative demographic?" Or maybe he was planning some sort of subvert-from-within scheme, a plot to take on the evil marketers where they lived.
As it turned out, neither was the case. Frank was absent from the panel, which, as its cochairs Sandra Blum and Marc Spiegler explained to the audience, was incorrectly described in the catalog. Far from aiming to explain how to target Generation X, they meant to deconstruct it. Their panelists weren't marketers at all, but guys in their 20s who edited for, wrote for, or sold ads for Might, Io, Spec, Bikini, and Huh, all magazines meant to be read by other people in their 20s--but not only by people in their 20s and not by everyone in their 20s. As the discussion progressed it became less, rather than more, clear just who these guys thought their audience was.
If Generation X is a group at all, it consists, paradoxically, of the people most obsessed with denying they're in it--those who insist, in chorus, that they have no exploitable commonalities. As they try to keep in touch with this quirky readership, Gen X magazines (none of which describe themselves as such) undergo a constant and clandestine struggle for self-definition. Though they never stop trying to figure out who their audience is, they can't let on to this--it smacks of "market research and unpalatable parallels with the thinking that lay behind Fruitopia. They must be eclectic, rough-hewn, and abstruse enough to seem like authentic voices and yet still offer something that at least a few people--and hopefully a lot of people--want to read.
As might be expected, such a delicate mesh of countercommitments clashes with the very nature of the Folio show. Though it does group its workshops into business and editorial "tracks," Folio makes no distinction between marketing to advertisers and marketing to readers. In the headline-writing seminar, for instance, the presenter goaded editorial directors to think like advertisers with homilies like "Familiarity breeds content" and "Writing advertising is like writing poetry: you have to say a lot with a few words."
Spiegler says he was shocked when he saw how his panel was portrayed in the catalog. "We wanted to talk about some general concepts--how ludicrous the whole idea of Generation X is and whether a generation that has watched more TV and read fewer newspapers has a different approach to information," he says. "We put some marketing stuff in our proposal, but they just included that in the catalog and cut out everything else."
Despite urgent rewrites by Spiegler and Blum, Folio's description of the seminar was a remarkably painstaking sellout of anything that could be called the Gen X ethos. In addition to assuring attendees that they'd "get their share of the Generation X market," it promised to tell "how to market to a generation that doesn't trust marketing," "how sex sells to the first post-AIDS generation," and the "five surefire ways to turn this generation off." Though it was apparently intended to sell the panel to busy conventiongoers (the various seminars cost $135 a pop), the summary failed on all fronts. It frustrated Spiegler and Blum, attracted only nine audience members, and caused one of the invited panelists to quit in disgust.
The Friday before the conference the Baffler's Frank fired off an angry letter to the show's organizers saying that he was "deeply disturbed" to find himself associated with the workshop as it was described. "I cannot conscientiously participate in such a discussion," he wrote. "Even a cursory reading of the essays I have written on 'Generation X'...would have made my opinion on this subject clear."
Frank sent a copy of the letter to Spiegler, who wrote the whole thing off as a misunderstanding. Since he and Frank didn't speak directly before the show, Frank didn't learn of the description's inaccuracy until after it was over. On the other hand, it's doubtful that Frank would have been any happier with the discussion Spiegler had originally intended to have.
To the bewilderment of the sparse audience (remember, they'd signed up for the workshop described in the catalog, not the one that was actually conducted), the panel consisted primarily of sneak attacks on the knotty problem of reader response.
"People in our generation tend to demand a certain level of authenticity in what we read," Spiegler said. "We don't want to feel like a bunch of execs sat down in a board meeting and said, 'Hey, what do the kids want?'"
The surest way to avoid this flavor is to copy zines, the tiny, Xeroxed screeds that are the new darlings of alternative-media watchers. Motivated solely by someone's private obsession with mass murderers, latex clothing, or thrift shops, they eschew any deliberate reader-grabbing strategies. But, though enviably authentic they also tend to be poorly written and dull.
"I get tired of zines because often they just seem like a rant. They're not really connected to anything," said panelist Chip Rowe, who works at Playboy and also publishes the zine Chip's Closet Cleaner. "There are all these aspects of magazine management that we want to throw out the window, but then when the result is on the page it's crap."
Despite their annoying scruffiness, zines were generally praised by the panelists as pure expressions of their (usually sole) authors' visions. But then there's Swing, which, as Blum put it, is "in a category by itself." Since it's run by Ralph Lauren's son, most of the financing is presumably provided in exchange for full-page Polo ads. Having no need to court sponsors, in a sense it's the ultimate zine. But in the eyes of the panelists, Swing could do no right. They took turns decrying it as too flashy, too deliberate, too much a self-parody--and even as they complained about it, they couldn't seem to put it down.
"I actually like Swing," Rowe admitted, pointing to a smart cover piece on twentysomethings who appeared on the FBI's most-wanted list. "I think it's interesting that even though we're all saying such bad things about it, most people want to flip through it."
He was right. As each panelist started on an anti-Swing rant, he unconsciously fingered the cover and then almost compulsively paged through to scan the fat headlines and glossy photos inside. Eventually an audience member asked that it be passed around the room. Despite the panelists' protestations to the contrary, most of the audience probably left thinking that Swing was the Gen X book to watch.
It's easy to see what the panelists found so irritatingly seductive about Swing--it has the money to be pretty without needing to scramble for ads. Advertising is a conundrum for most of these magazines. They rely on the hated Generation X stereotype to attract advertisers, who are out to exploit their readership in exactly the way that they oppose. But they need the ads to survive, and even though their renegade status is their lifeblood, they're seriously tempted by legitimacy. Ed Berry, co-owner of the Graffiti Group, which sells ads for Raygun and Bikini, lamented the fact that major agencies still view the publications he represents as mere zines. "If you're going to call something a zine that has a staff and a full-time ad sales rep, maybe you're not taking it seriously enough," he said.
The editors' feelings were more mixed. No one wants to turn into Details or Spin, but no one wants to go out of business either. And as with their denunciations of Swing, the panelists' loud opposition to Details seemed to mask a sheepish envy of its influence. There's a lot of room between the poles of a tiny zine and Details of course; the question is how close you can get to the power of a huge readership while escaping its corruption. For most of these cash-strapped magazines, it's just an academic issue for now. If they're lucky it will become a more pressing concern.