Tuesday, January 15, 2008

'Esquire's' Not-So-Secret Shame

'Esquire's' Not-So-Secret Shame
by Jeff Bercovici
There's something unseemly about the lingerie spread in the February issue of Esquire, and it has nothing to do with all the skin on display.

Four Victoria's Secret models adorn the cover in an homage to a classic Esquire photo of Angie Dickinson. Inside is a nine-page photo feature in which the models pose in various undergarments and offer "expert buying advice" for the discriminating male lingerie shopper. Their advice, of course, is to buy Victoria's Secret underwear; it's the only brand shown.

I don't know for certain that the magazine made an explicit deal to showcase only Victoria's Secret products in exchange for access to the models -- I haven't heard back yet from editor in chief David Granger -- but it seems fairly obvious that it did.

If so, so what? Lifestyle magazine cover stories are promotional almost by definition. Every time an actor or actress appears on a cover, it's because he or she has a movie, album or other project to hawk. And if that movie, album or other project didn't get mentioned in the profile, that magazine could count on an earful from the star's publicist.

And yet...this feels different, in a bad way. Partly it's because Esquire has a prouder journalistic pedigree than most other lifestyle rags (as it will be constantly reminding us in this, its 75th anniversary year). While Esquire grubs in the celebrity-access marketplace like everybody else, it frequently seems to hold its nose while doing so; its efforts to avoid being just another studio publicity tool have produced some truly tortured journalism. In lowering itself, then, Esquire has farther to fall than most.

But even more than that, it's the nakedness of this particular quid pro quo. These women were invited here to sell magazines, and they came to sell underwear. For the space of nine pages, Esquire stops being Esquire and becomes a piece of Victoria's Secret's marketing strategy, indistinguishable from the catalogs and commercials these same models appear in, wearing the very same lace demi push-up bras and come-hither expressions.

The whole thing is reminiscent of what happened in 2003, when Harper's Bazaar put Madonna, who was at that time modeling for the Gap, on the cover. Not only was she wearing Gap clothes, but the image used was an outtake from a Gap advertising shoot. Bazaar, like Esquire, is owned by Hearst Magazines; read into that what you will (and, yes, bear in mind that I work for Conde Nast, Hearst's main competitor).

I don't want to inflate the importance of the principles at stake here, or give the impression that I'm opposed to depicting hot women in their skivvies (especially in light of this). No doubt the average men's magazine reader would rather have racy pictures of Adriana Lima than honest product coverage. But why shouldn't they get both?


The Ethics of the 'SI' Swimsuit Issue

Did Sports Illustrated cut costs on its annual swimsuit issue with a journalistically shady deal? That's the implication of an item in yesterday's Cindy Adams column -- but the magazine says it's not true.

Adams claims SI got a sweetheart deal from the Israeli tourism bureau, which paid half the airfare to fly a crew of 17 to the Holy Land for a photo shoot with hot sabra Bar Rafaeli. It wouldn't be the first time the Israeli government reached out to an American magazine to promote travel; Maxim featured a "Women of the Israeli Defense Forces" spread in its July issue.

From a purist standpoint, letting a third party pick up part of the tab for a photo shoot is definitely a no-no. In its ethics guidelines, the Society of Professional Journalist warns members to "refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment...if they compromise journalistic integrity."

Of course, whether a photographer shooting swimsuit models is involved in a journalistic enterprise in any sense is an open question. "The whole swimsuit issue is such a shameless departure from the type of journalism SI does each week, it defies explanation and I wouldn't treat anything in the issue seriously," says Andy Schotz, chairman of SPJ's ethics committee.

"My own feeling is that it's primarily entertainment and doesn't even attempt to display integrity," says Fred Brown, vice chairman of the committee. "Other stuff, perhaps, but not integrity."

But Bob Steele, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, says letting a tourism bureau underwrite a swimsuit issue shoot could be the start of a "slippery slope."

"What if, instead, it had to do with the Olympic venues in China?" he asks. "What if it was a photo shoot on a college campus having to do with a new athletic arena? You can imagine the 'what ifs' that take it from something seemingly as innocuous as a swimsuit issue into a controversial sports venue where the stakes are much greater and the journalism element much clearer."

The whole issue is moot, however, according to an SI spokesman, who says Adams mischaracterized the arrangement behind the shoot. "Because it was a large group, our travel party used a corporate media rate that's standard practice for all media companies," he says. Neither the Israeli tourism office nor anyone else chipped in, he adds.

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