Nov 1 1995

Invasion of the Magazine Snatchers

The Sassy/'Teen Merger:

Amid teenage girl magazines’ standard fare of earnest advice about boyfriends, self-esteem and cosmetics purchases, Sassy was always a stand-out.

Take how Sassy dealt with the issue of flirting. The cover of the September 1994 issue might not have stood out on the newsstand—”How to Flirt Like an Animal” was the main story. But rather than recycle the same age-old drivel about how flirting requires a pleasant laugh, an ability to make small talk, a dose of self-confidence and a modicum of restraint, Sassy gave an extensive description of various types of mating behavior practiced by animals, then detailed their equivalencies for the human girl.

For example, Tip No. 9: “Unnerve him a little. Beast strategy: The male praying mantis keeps trying to mount the female, but the inhibitions in his little insect brain prevent him from doing a good job—he’s really scared of her. So she turns around and bites his head off. This loosens him up totally! With his inhibitions gone, his body rocks away with gleeful abandon.”

The analogous human technique? “Dress to reveal your tattoos. Write hate on your knuckles. Be deadpan always. Don’t be exchanging your customary black lipstick for pink on his account. He will be terrified, but enticed.” The end of the article reminds young women that mitosis is always an option.

Seven months later, Sassy ran another article on flirting. This time, the cover quote was “The Do’s, Don’ts, and Dangers of Flirting.” The story reminds young women to avoid flirting with their gynecologists, professors, bosses, the boyfriends of friends, or therapists.

A psychologist, intriguingly named Dr. Virtue, is brought on to remind us that men just can not tell the difference between innocent flirting and serious seduction attempts. “Men think about sex all the time—some studies show as much as six times an hour. So any time you’re flirting with one of them, there’s always a chance he’s imagining what you look like without your clothes on. No wonder they get a little carried away sometimes!” The article ends with the upbeat reminder that “It’s a lot more fun flirting when you know it could lead to something good and lasting. Isn’t that the real goal of flirting in the first place?”

The humor—gone. The self-parody—vanished completely. The feminist edge—take me back to the ’50s, and don’t wiggle too provocatively on the way. Can this possibly be the same magazine?

Teens & Ammo

In name only. In October 1994, Lang Communications—publisher of Working Woman, Working Mother and Ms.—sold Sassy to Petersen Publishing, an L.A.-based company that publishes ‘Teen, another one of the Big Four teen mags (the other two being Seventeen and YM), as well as specialty magazines like Car Craft, Golfing, Guns & Ammo and Handguns.

Dale Lang said at the time of the sale (Folio: First Day, 10/10/94) that for the price Petersen was paying, it would be “crazy” for them to cease publication and use the Sassy mailing list merely to expand circulation of ‘Teen. But although Sassy is still being published—Jay Cole, executive publisher of both ‘Teen and Sassy, says it’s “a whole different psychographic” than ‘Teen—nearly the entire staff of the old Sassy was fired when the publication traded hands. And while it takes a marketing exec or an ad salesman to decipher a “psychographic,” what’s clear to any reader is that the new Sassy has a completely different mentality.

Take celebrity interviews, a requisite of any teen magazine. Where the old Sassy once received an angry letter from Tiffani-Amber Thiessen’s publicist after referring to the teen TV star as a “dead bimbo” (New York Press, 11/23/94), the new Sassy does a story on Liv Tyler, actress daughter of Aerosmith star Steve: “What we discovered is that Liv’s just as cool as her genes.”

Or advice columns: the old Sassy had one written by a female staffer, the new Sassy has one written by a male DJ. The beauty-tip column, another standby, was once a sardonic “Zits & Stuff”; now it’s the more serious “Beauty Q & A.”

Clothes and makeup, otherwise known as fashion and beauty, generally play a much more prominent role in the new Sassy; almost every page of the new Sassy reads like a commercial for beauty products. A spread called “Beauty and the Bath” (10/95) is just a long list of brand-name bathing gels, powder, soaps and sprays; editors tell you their favorite hair, skin, nail and body products in a special section near the front of the magazine; a pseudo-article on “What Your Medicine Cabinet Says About You” (4/95) shamelessly equates product placement with identity.

Beyond Blather

It’s not that the old Sassy was wholly able to avoid pushing lipliner and miniskirts. But somehow the tone was completely different: “What is it about these infomercialesque products that creates such glee?” (10/94) Or, in a fashion spread (9/94): “Sara, living the archetypal model nightmare—posing in toasty woolly clothes on a disgustingly hot day.” The old Sassy also never, ever ran those repulsive full-page scams for the Get Him System (the “World’s Best Guy-Getting System”) or the Total Body Reshaping System, both of which are now prominently featured in the new Sassy.

The way Sassy once dealt with the mandatory fashion-magazine blather was to parody it—and then move on. At the center of the old Sassy were its articles, more than one in each issue, detailed and interesting reporting pieces rather than condescending gestures in the direction of good writing.

For a brief sampler, there was a serious look at the causes of the Gulf War (2/91); an article on Shannon Faulkner called “One Girl and the Patriarchy” (11/94); an article about girls who’ve succeeded at science talking about the reasons so many girls don’t (9/94); an article about a day in the life of a heroin addict (2/94); an article about coming back to the Midwest after the flood (1/94); an article about the difficult life of a young professional ballerina (5/94).

The new Sassy has made some gesture towards retaining the good writing and intelligent commentary of its predecessor. But flipping through the October 1995 issue, somehow a “Creep Out Quiz” in which readers “test their scary music smarts” by matching “Stairway to Heaven” with Led Zeppelin doesn’t have the same ring as a review (10/93) of an anti-rape zine under the headline “A Bitter Pill for Katie Roiphe.”

An article about racial harassment on college campuses, “How Bigotry Feels”, claims that “The days of institutionalized bigotry are over”; in other words, real racial divisions and inequities are a thing of the past, and what remains are hurtful words and damaged feelings. In a section titled “Hate: Nature or Nurture?” the article provocatively states, “Some experts believe that racism is genetically built into us”—and then fails to cite any expert who actually propounds the bizarre socio-biological view.

Debt and Fundamentalists

When Dale Lang acquired Sassy in 1989 from Matilda Publications, he incurred a hefty debt which Sassy‘s revenues never quite recovered. Sassy‘s early years spelled havoc for any profit-seeking publisher; in 1989, Sassy‘s advertisers were subject to a very successful pressure campaign from the Christian Coalition, which was incensed by the magazine’s straightforward treatment of sexual issues. According to Marjorie Ingalls, ex-staffer and author of the article about the flirting techniques of the praying mantis, Christian fundamentalists have periodically threatened subsequent boycotts.

The furor of Pat Robertson didn’t faze teenage readers, though; Sassy‘s circulation has nearly doubled since 1990, and had reached 800,000 at the time of the sale. Sassy actually ran a profit for a year in 1992. But in spite of growing circulation, ad revenues dropped from $12.1 million in 1993 to $10.7 million in 1994, and though the total sales of the magazine were on the rise the number of subscriptions had stopped growing.

Saddled with debt, Lang found himself burdened with a controversial magazine in a market which seemed increasingly competitive; he complained to the New York Times at the time of the sale (10/10/94), “Advertisers did not increase their budget for teen markets. Now there are more titles. So what are we supposed to do?”

The Grande Dame of teen magazines is Seventeen, which has a circulation of 2 million, and in 1994 took in $39 million from subscriptions and newsstand sales and $34 million from ad revenues. At Lang, Sassy wasn’t anywhere close to that. But the Petersen conglomerate may now be able to offer Sassy and ‘Teen to advertisers as a package deal, selling them a combined audience as big as Seventeen‘s.

Lang‘s Jay Cole said to the New York Times (12/8/94), “In the last year or so, Sassy became more of a fringe publication than a cutting-edge magazine. It missed a large part of the teen market and concentrated on a small number of teens that don’t relate to the mainstream. There was a darker side to Sassy, and I think they alienated part of their market.”

Which market? The 800,000 readers, or the half dozen makeup companies? Even though circulation accounts for a higher percentage of revenues than ad sales, it seems that advertisers—thanks to the sheer amount of money they control—remain the market courted by publishers of teenage magazines.

Ex-Sassy writer Ingalls says, “I wish there was some way for our loyal subscribers to count for something, for total fanatical loyalty and being smart readers to count.” But in the world of teen magazines, thousands of dollars for a half-page ad win out over $2.50 on the newsstand. You can sell teenage girls to advertisers. Just don’t try to sell a magazine to teenage girls.