Sex and the Single Magazine
 

 

A Dallas Publisher Draws the Line 
By Sandra Adams  


Clutch the pearls! -- one of the ads that pulped 70,000 copies of D.

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Two women lie lazily across twin beds, one is wearing very little clothing, the other even less – only a garter belt, stockings and stiletto heels. The image is steamy and suggestive, perfect for the opening shot of a soft porn film. The only problem is, it isn’t the opening shot of a soft porn film.

It’s an ad. To sell clothes. To women.

The image is part of a national advertising campaign for Versace and it’s been published in a host of mainstream magazines, including Talk, Elle and GQ. But perhaps the most surprising aspect of the ad is that it doesn’t deviate far from the norm. In recent months, fashion houses seem to be trying to top one another with highly-charged sexual ads that some say border on pornography. Randall Rothenberg, the chief marketing officer at the consulting firm of Booz-Allen & Hamilton and a columnist for Advertising Age magazine, calls it the continuation of a long-standing trend. "The history of advertising is a history of advertisers walking up to the edge of contemporary morality and seeing how far they can push it," he says.

If you flip pages of the Dallas lifestyle magazine, D, you won’t find the Versace ad or any of the other provocative ad campaigns, for that matter. Wick Allison, D’s editor and publisher, has drawn a line – and a very public one at that. He made headlines last year for dumping 70,000 copies of the September issue of his publication after he discovered two ads that he described as "obscene." Although Allison has consistently refused to identify the specific advertisers involved, various media organizations, including The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, have reported that Gucci is one of the offenders. Its ad features a scantily clad female model kneeling in front of a bare chested man who, judging by the rather large bulge in his pants, is more than a little happy to see her. For its part, Gucci has remained silent about the incident, refusing to comment on this or any of its advertising campaigns.

At first blush, it’s tempting to view the D incident purely in moralistic terms, especially when you consider Allison’s background. He’s a former publisher of the National Review, he edited a version of the Bible, and he wrote a biblical quiz book called That’s in the Bible? In fact, that’s how most news organizations covered the story last year. They derided the fashion industry for its provocative ad campaigns and applauded Allison for his willingness to take a stand in the name of decency.

Allison himself offers a different reason for his decision to trash an entire press run of his magazine: it made good business sense. He believes that if readers got a look at the offensive ads, it would turn them off the publication, ultimately decreasing sales and D’s overall value. Sure, he concedes, it cost a lot of money, but not as much as the publication is worth. "The magazine, as a whole, is much more valuable than any one advertiser in it," he says. "Protection of the magazine’s franchise is the number one duty. So it becomes a very easy decision when it comes to especially egregious ads."

Allison says he is also looking out for his advertisers’ best interests. "Readers respond to advertising. We don’t want those wonderful advertisers to be run out of town – that loses an advertising contract for us," he says with a laugh. "We’re here to help."

From an advertising standpoint, a magazine is a lot like a shopping mall, he continues. "The landlord takes great care in assembling the right mix of retailers. Anybody who violates his standards is tossed out – that’s in the lease – because to attract the audience you have to have the right mix and you have to have the right level of quality. We’re an upscale mall from an advertising viewpoint. We have certain standards."

But D magazine is by no means devoid of sexual content. Allison readily concedes that the magazine’s editors will sometimes produce fashion spreads that would be nixed if submitted in advertisement form. He cited last year’s August cover as an example – it featured a woman covered with strategically placed handfuls of whipped cream in a tribute to the trumpeter Herb Alpert’s 1965 album, "Whipped Cream & Other Delights." "But you know, that was an editorial decision," says Allison. "We don’t allow advertisers to make editorial decisions."

How did the particular incident at D come about? Allison attributes it to an internal communication failure. "One department thought I had approved it, the other department thought I had approved it, both had questions about it – I hadn’t approved it," he explains. He only noticed the offending items while flipping through an advance copy of the issue, the final copies of which were already on their way to newsstands. He ordered the trucks to the recycling center instead.

Allison is hopeful that other magazines will follow his lead. But Rothenberg remains pessimistic. "This is one person, making one decision," he says. "One publisher rebelling in Dallas probably isn’t going to mean too much."