NEW YORK, United States — When InStyle booked Zendaya for the cover of its September issue, the magazine was mostly banking on her appeal as a multi-hyphenate star with a wide reach. At the time, the coronavirus was still largely contained to China and George Floyd’s killing by police was months away.

But by the time of the photoshoot in “Los Angeles as the city teetered on its second lockdown,” Editor-in-Chief Laura Brown wrote in her editor’s letter, the world had changed, and a cover focused on Gen-Z fashion and beauty risked appearing out of touch, even offensive. The magazine came up with a solution it hoped would thread the needle between offering social reflection and a compelling fashion moment: Zendaya was shot by Atlanta-based photographers Ahmad Barber and Donté Maurice exclusively wearing pieces from Black designers, including Christopher John Rogers, Aliétte and Pyer Moss, styled by Law Roach.

The cover received plenty of praise online. But it wasn’t entirely risk-free: photoshoots in fashion magazines are typically vehicles to feature brands that pay for print and digital ads, the cornerstone of most publications’ business models. Brown said continuing to engage with issues that matter to InStyle readers was more important – and in the long run, likely better for the magazine as well (for August, Dr Anthony Fauci was featured on the cover, which became the publication’s most popular ever).

This year has really shaken the ground in terms of brands and what they are willing to be associated with.

“If you look at a magazine cover and go, ‘They clearly need that credit on that actress because that saves their business,’ well, you don’t get that sense with us,” Brown said. “We’re still in this advertising-based revenue system, … but we don’t want to look like we’re dependent on that. Anybody that we work with as an advertiser appreciates what I’ve done, and when, who we include and what we stand for.”

The September issue, which at most fashion glossies attracts the most buzz and advertising revenue, is proving particularly fraught this year. Although these magazines have progressive editorial stances, most have shied away from explicitly engaging with controversial topics that might alienate some subset of readers, and therefore advertisers.

That thinking was already changing before 2020, with some mainstream brands wading into the political conversation. But between the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, editors are testing the limits of how far they can go to cater both to advertisers and to an increasingly socially- and politically-minded readership.

You can still find plenty of celebrity covers among the September issues, though most make some nod to the current climate. Some are taking a more direct approach, highlighting regular citizens, activists, or industry employees.

There’s a business case for both.

“This year has really shaken the ground in terms of brands and what they are willing to be associated with,” said Bernie Fischer, chief operating officer of mobile advertising firm Mobkoi. “I think it’s important from an industry perspective that we’re supporting the publications with the covers [featuring activism] because I think in this industry we have a moral imperative to ensure that we are talking about what is going on in the world right now.”

Advertisers Once Avoided Divisive Content. Now, It’s Valuable.

At the onset of the pandemic, some digital advertisers went so far as to use “keyword blocking” so their content wouldn’t appear alongside news stories related to Covid-19. The same was true in the early days of the protests, where words and phrases like “Black Lives Matter,” “George Floyd” and “protests” were added to ad agency blocklists, Vice Media Group reported in June.

Many of these measures have since been rolled back. A growing number of advertisers are even targeting these stories, knowing they will reach a wider audience. That, in turn, frees up magazines, which are increasingly concerned with achieving online virality by offering their spin on the day’s most important topics, rather than the sort of timeless content that once juiced newsstand sales.

Anybody that we work with as an advertiser appreciates what I’ve done, and when, who we include and what we stand for.

American Vogue, for instance, usually features celebrities and supermodels on its September covers. Its September 2017 cover, in the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency when the fight over immigrants was raging, featured Jennifer Lawrence posing in front of the Statue of Liberty with the heading “American Beauty.”

This year, contemporary artist Jordan Casteel painted Aurora James, founder of the independent label Brother Vellies and a prominent voice on racial injustice in the fashion industry, wearing Pyer Moss. On a second cover, artist Kerry James Marshall offered a fictional Black woman dressed in Off-White. Vogue said it offered the artists creative control, other than asking them to choose a look from a preselected list of designers.

Vanity Fair and O Magazine both featured paintings of Breonna Taylor, a Black woman killed by police in her home in March, and who has become a rallying point for calls for racial justice. British Vogue, meanwhile, dedicated its September issue to “Activism Now,” featuring model and mental health activist Adwoa Aboah and Marcus Rashford, a British footballer campaigning to end child poverty in the UK.

But, pressing ahead with a politically- or socially-minded fashion cover isn’t always straightforward.

In some cases, what has emerged from the evolved editorial approach is a conflict that highlights the difficulty in committing to social justice content while running an advertising-based business. This year’s Vanity Fair cover, for its part, was not unanimously well-received. The issue includes an interview with Taylor’s mother and is guest-edited by Ta-Nehisi Coates. HBO appears as a title sponsor on the issue’s digital landing page, promoting “Lovecraft Country,” a new horror series set in America during the Jim Crow era. Some social media users criticised the magazine for potentially profiting off Taylor’s killing.

“I hope all of the ad money contained in this issue go directly to the family, and profits from the sales as well. Otherwise, Condé Nast et all are directly profiting from a Black person’s death,” one Twitter user wrote, reflecting the discomfort that other social media users expressed online.

Still, readers — those who increasingly expect magazines to reflect their values and engage with global events much like value-driven consumers expect that brands are aligned with their beliefs — have engaged with the content online more and more.

A lot of what we do is really questioning and challenging all of those biases and decisions that people have made in the industry.

Teen Vogue, a title known for its progressive political content, has seen its earned media value (EMV), the industry-standard metric for impact on the internet and social media, increase 31 percent in August 2020 from the same time last year, according to analytics firm Tribe Dynamics. By comparison, publications like Harper’s Bazaar, American Vogue and Vogue Italia all saw EMV losses, even as consumers spend more time at home and online.

“A lot of what we do is really questioning and challenging all of those biases and decisions that people have made in the industry,” said Teen Vogue Editor-in-Chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner. “I think everyone is starting to do [that] now. We’re glad to already be on the train.”

Of course, print advertising remains the main source of revenue for many publishers. Condé Nast’s 2019 print advertising pages generated 36 percent of the company’s revenue that year, compared to 24 percent from online ads. Before the coronavirus pandemic forced luxury brands to reconsider their annual marketing budgets, there was a correction towards reinvesting in print titles after overdosing on digital spending.

Celebrity Covers Become Complicated

Some titles have continued business-as-usual with their covers. Elle put musician Cardi B on its cover wearing Balenciaga, Travis Scott appeared on American GQ, and model Kendall Jenner fronted Architectural Digest.

Celebrity cover stars, many of whom were booked months in advance of an issue’s release, are an effective way for titles interested in leveraging the star power of a household name with tens of millions of followers online.

Spotlighting a celebrity who also happens to be promoting a new project increases the risk that the magazine appears disconnected from its readers. Vogue Hong Kong, for example, faced backlash after featuring Kylie Jenner on the August cover of its “Act Now” issue.

We all have credits that we have to fulfil and there’s a lot of competing interests.

“Kylie Jenner, who has done nothing for Hong Kong’s fight for democracy, graces the cover of Vogue HK’s Action issue which aims at promoting social awareness and activism,” wrote one Twitter user. “Vogue‘s attempt to profit off the goodness of our movement (without actually supporting it) is insulting.”

T Magazine, The New York Times’ style magazine is somewhat insulated from the pressure facing other fashion titles. In fact, T, with its built-in subscriber base that allows for the magazine to take greater perceived content risks, “fuels ad revenue” across the entire New York Times portfolio including print and digital, according to Lisa Ryan Howard, senior vice president and media general manager for The New York Times and T.

T’s Fall women’s fashion issue features model Anok Yai wearing all the usual luxury brands like Celine, Gucci, and Yves Saint Laurent. Inside, the magazine commissioned five artists and activist groups to reimagine the American monument, “one that better embodies this current moment of reckoning alongside the crimes of the past,” a nod to the national debate surrounding Confederate army statues.

“We all have credits that we have to fulfil and there’s a lot of competing interests, but I do think that there has been — and I understand this completely — a kind of timidity that’s overtaken a lot of books and it’s a real concern,” T Editor-in-Chief Hanya Yanagihara said. “All of us can always benefit from … experimenting and continuing to kind of throw your hands up in the air.”

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