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Consumerism and Lifestyle — Textual Analysis of Bliss and Zoo Magazine by Stephen Hill

Bliss magazine Zoo magazine
Introduction

In this article I am going to discuss the representation of consumerism in the magazines Bliss and Zoo. This will take the form of a textual analysis of the front cover, editorial, advertisements and advertorial. Both titles are owned by the media group Emap; Emap is a global giant at the forefront of the digital revolution and a dominant force in the UK's magazine publishing industry. This is reflected in the substantial sales for both Zoo and Bliss (ABC figures for July to December 2005 were 260,470 and 277,165 respectively) and their development as multi-platform brands (both have synergised websites and SMS). Zoo (priced at £1.20) was launched in 2004 in direct competition to IPC's Nuts. It is the little brother of FHM: a weekly title for men (age 16–30) “who like girls, football and funny stuff” (www.emap.com). Its brand values are “tropical, sexy, sporty and funny” (www.emap.com). Bliss (£1.49, usual price £2.10)) was re-launched as a teen compact in 2003 and, likewise, it is the entrée to more mature women's titles (Grazia and Red). It describes itself as “a sassy yet practical guide to being a girl” (www.blissmag.co.uk). Its brand values are ”aspirational, glamorous, glossy, and gorgeous” (www.emap.com).

Defining Consumerism

In the OED consumerism is defined as “the protection or promotion of consumer interests”. Although consumption can be literal (food) or symbolic (culture), in contemporary society the role of the consumer is often defined by capitalist acts of material exchange. To what extent we view this definition as positive probably depends on the extent to which we go along with Karl Marx's critique of Capitalism (1848). More recent postmodern accounts, however, have been inclined to view the role of the consumer more constructively. Both Jean Baudrillard (1970) and Frederic Jameson (1984) have argued that consumption is active, not passive, and that the purchase of material goods is indivisible from the signification of identity. This tension is played out then in contemporary consumerism and lifestyle magazines. On the one hand, for media audiences, titles like Bliss and Zoo are very much about the negotiation of personal identity. On the other hand, the identification of “defined communities” (www.emapadvertising.com) is, for media institutions, about servicing their clients (advertising agencies) with an editorial vehicle that will reach a target demographic of consumers. Beyond this, however, where consumerism and lifestyle magazines differ from other media texts, is that they explicitly address consumer culture.

Analysing the Front Covers

The front covers of both Bliss and Zoo deploy a number of textual strategies for appealing to discrete demographics of target consumers. The masthead of Zoo for example is in a bold red font that utilises a large point size and capital letters. The connotation of this is passion, virility and danger: the no-nonsense assertiveness of the red-blooded heterosexual male. This is reinforced by the magazine's title, which connotes primordial wildness. By contrast the masthead of Bliss uses a more decorative lowercase font in a slightly smaller point size. The pastel pink colouring encompasses the feminine ideals of delicacy and daintiness, while the title itself connotes heavenly pleasure. This reliance on very stereotyped strategies for addressing the reader as a gendered subject, suggests that consumer culture is cohered around social constructions of biological sex that are singular and fixed.

The main feature article photographs reinforce this division. Both feature female subjects. The shot types, composition and framing, however, connote very different messages about the relationship between gender and consumer culture. On the cover of Bliss we see a medium-close-up shot of television presenter Fearne Cotton. Her relaxed manner, open expression and youthful appearance are all contrived to appeal to the magazine's target audience for whom Cotton is presented as a role model. The framing of the shot excludes any explicit depiction of her body; it is Cotton's personality, not sexuality, which is being fetishised as a product for consumption.

By contrast the medium-long shot on the cover of Zoo features two anonymous female models sporting black bras and pants. The low angle of the shot gives the figures dominance; however, this power is effaced by the clothing code, which purposely sexualises the subjects. The shot adheres to Laura Mulvey's (1975) ideas about the male gaze: it constructs the female body as a consumer object, servicing the sexual fantasies of the heterosexual male. The main cover lines reinforce this. While Bliss encourages women to construct themselves as objects for male consumption (“Look 100% sexier”), Zoo's is pre-occupied with the consumption of the female form (“Mmm Honeys”). On the one hand, Bliss's use of a command (“Look”) makes the instruction to readers seem imperative. On the other hand, Zoo invites men to wallow in the delight of a non-verbal utterance (“Mmm”) and a figurative allusion to the literal consumption of the female form (“Honeys”).

In other respects there is considerable similarity between the forms and conventions of the front covers of these two titles, and the representation of consumer culture. Both feature discreetly positioned, yet visible, perpendicular bar codes: underscoring the fact that the magazines themselves are consumer products. Likewise, both titles prominently feature the cover price with phrases that include the word “only”. This signifies to the reader that both titles offer consumer value. This predisposition towards the value of the publication is emphasised by the number of plugs on the cover of each title (7 on each). While Bliss promises a portfolio of beauty tips and true life confessions, the plugs on Zoo are, aside from promises of more female flesh, for interviews with sporting celebrities (Flintoff and Hansen). Although both spheres of interest are highly restricted, the emphasis in Bliss on the more ephemeral and personal (i.e. gossip) reinforces the distinction between the value of ‘cultural capital’ that is feminine, and more established and dominant male forms (i.e. sport). This value difference is reinforced by the inter-textual/synergised reference to another men's title owned by Emap (FHM) on the cover of Zoo: this conspires to create an “ambience” (Baudrillard) of masculine authority cohered around the consumption of female flesh and the manufacture of a lifestyle brand name.

Inside the Magazines

Elsewhere in both magazines identity and consumerism are closely linked. For example, the editor's letter of Bliss tries to create a personal relationship with the reader in it's use of colloquial words and phrases, shifts from first to second person, personal pronouns and rhetorical devices: “You know, the usual trick of telling spooky stories until someone cries, leaping out of wardrobes in darkened room and appearing in unusual places in so-called scary mask. I mean what's not to love?” This ‘chummy’ mode of address is complimented by the inclusion of a Polaroid-style medium close-up of the editor, as well as the handwritten style of the salutation (“Hi!”) and sign-off (“Lisa” with a kiss). Beneath this veneer of congeniality, however, is an explicitly articulated set of instructions about how to consume the magazine (“turn to page 51” and “flick straight away to page 70”) that betrays a more calculated, mercantile agenda. Moreover, this disjointed approach to the consumption of the text (i.e. not reading it in order) could also be said to be a manifestation of the fragmented order of culture at large in a postmodern consumer society.

Editor's letter, Bliss Editor's letter, Zoo

While Zoo does not have an editor's letter, Zoo's news section deploys many of the same strategies to engage the reader. For example, the use of imperative commands, telling the reader to “turn to page eight” is present and correct, however, these are not couched in the same affectation of cosy familiarity. The editorial augments the use of rhetorical devices with non-verbal utterances (“Hmm”) and exclamatory punctuation for effect (“And now this!”). Consumerism is presented as a noble and heroic pursuit, and the aspiration for unobtainable material goods (“The Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution”) a righteous and splendid thing. Thus, in the high-angle mid shot of the red vehicle, all details are blurred to connote speed and reinforce the idea of danger, with the exception of the brand name which is static and clearly visible. Unlike Bliss, Zoo is forthright and candid in its articulation of consumer values; the car's vital statistics (top speed, 0–60 etc) are listed with mock-irony in the section entitled the “numbery bit”. What unites both titles, however, is the exclusion of any reference to current affairs and social issues in any of its editorial beyond that which relates immediately to the depiction of lifestyle; it is a given, it would seem, that the consumer society is not political.

Analysing the Feature Article

There is an evenness in the representation of consumerism within each title. For example, the main feature article about Fearne Cotton in Bliss substitutes a real picture of the celebrity with a high-angle shot of a Barbie doll surrounded by kitsch artefacts that connote pop culture (a vintage record player, 7 inch vinyl, an electric guitar). The pastel tones are consistent with the overall house style of the title, as is the depiction of the private female space (the teenage bedroom) which is fashioned into a colourful celebration of a girl's world. Likewise, the main feature article in Zoo (High street Honeys) conflates consumer culture and sex. The extract features low angle medium long shots of female models in various states of undress. Each picture is anchored by a short and salacious Q&A-style interview, which plays up to stereotypical male fantasies (“Can you do any unusual tricks?” “Ever made a man speechless?”) and a caption denoting the metropolitan area in which they live. On the one hand, the reference to a retail space in the main cover line connotes availability and reinforces the objectification the female form as an aspirational consumer item. On the other, the low-brow charm of the provincial high street connotes an accessibility and convenience that is perhaps less threatening than the international glamour of the catwalk.

The Advertising Portfolio

While both magazines are aspirational in their brand values, it could be said that much of the advertising portfolio in women's magazines plays upon the insecurities of potential consumers. For example, Maybelline's ‘Dream Mousse’ campaign features a low-angle facial close-up of a clear-skinned model. The soft-cream tones connote simplicity and beauty. The by-line “Maybe she's born with it, maybe it's Maybelline” invites the teenage audience to compare (presumably unfavourably) this representation with their own skin: making the instruction to purchase the product implicit. Likewise, the product endorsement of Enrique Iglesias in Giorgio Armani's true-star man campaign is ambiguous. On the one hand, the medium shot of the singer in blue denim and an open-neck white shirt creates borrowed interest from the world of show business, and, in conjunction with the white star logo, the advert can be seen as appealing to American iconography: the cowboy, Levi jeans and the Marlborough man (symbols of both global consumer culture and hyper-masculinity). On the other hand, it constructs Iglesias as a celebrity product himself; to be consumed like Giorgio Armani, as a premium brand and in who's reflected ambiance the singer is radiating. The relationship is symbiotic. The Armani campaign positions Iglesias in publications aimed at his target audience (teenage girls) and is, at the same time, encouraging teenage girls to buy Armani after-shave in order to transform boyfriends into the archetypal masculine ideal.

Make-up ad campaign in Bliss Aftershave ad campaign in Bliss

Advertising in Zoo is less intimidating in its mode of address. Channel Four's advertisement for Peep Show, for example, presents an altogether more realistic representation of masculinity. The medium-two shot of two very ordinary looking male figures on a sofa is shot straight on to the camera. The connotation of this is that the two men are watching the television: engaged in very normal and not at all aspirational, everyday activity. Likewise, the advertisement for an electric shaver by Braun uses a graphic representation of the male beard rather than fetishising the contours and jaw line of an individual model. While this may embody an ‘everyman’ kind of figure, the main sell-line of the product (“shave your style”) connotes the individualism that is synonymous with consumer culture.

TV show ad campaign in Zoo Shaver ad campaign in Zoo
Advertorial

Perhaps the area of the magazine that says most about the role of consumerism in contemporary lifestyle publications is the advertorial. For example, the Bliss “Star Spy” section features reviews of products and fashions that will enable its readers to replicate the look of well-known celebrities. The juxtaposition of candid paparazzi-style photography with carefully composed studio close-up of shoes, make-up and clothing, lend an editorial urgency to what is little more than product placement.

Zoo features consumer reviews for the latest film, music and DVD releases. On the one hand Zoo affects an objective, if somewhat satirical, house style, for example, reviews use a star-rating guide, while the “Zoo Pie” diagrams catalogue the influences on a film. On the other hand, the general focus conceals the editorial decision that has been made about which films, music and DVDs to review. Clearly there is a clandestine relationship between advertising and editorial in both titles, reflected in the selection and positioning of adverts. This goes beyond individual titles, however, and is a reflection of Emap's overall business strategy. For example, Emap's advertising division actively claim to provide “creative advertising solutions across all platforms” underpinned by “expert understanding of consumer behaviour” (www.emapadvertising.com). Consequently the editorial of one title is not just responsible for its own advertising portfolio, but that of the Emap empire as a whole. So, if an unfavourable editorial in a magazine like Zoo is likely to jeopardise a billion-pound multi-platform advertising deal, it stands only to reason that that copy might be revised.

Conclusion

In conclusion it would seem that media institutions are pre-occupied with the identification of niche markets (defined communities) in the production of consumerism and lifestyle magazines. This view is supported by the research carried out by Emap into media audiences, e.g. the Alpha Man and Corporate Creatives projects. On the one hand this is a reflection of the close relationship between the signification of personal identity and the consumption of all material artefacts (be that a car, toaster or lifestyle magazine). On the other hand it is also a function of the need of media institutions to service their clients (advertising agencies) with an editorial vehicle that will reach a target demographic of consumers.

Textual analysis of Bliss and Zoo suggest that gender is a key concept in the representation of consumer culture in lifestyle magazine publishing. Stereotyped assumptions about the forms and conventions that will appeal to discrete gender-specific audiences predominate. Meaning is organised around very traditional assumptions about colour, design, language and photography. In particular the objectification of the female body emerges as a key issue. Bliss invites women to become the consumers of their own body with a miscellany of advertorial on beauty products and fashion, while Zoo presents the female body as a sex object to be devoured. While both titles assume a deliberately familiar mode of address, Bliss is more covert in its pre-occupation with consumer values; hiding its mercenary intent behind jovial chat. Zoo, on the other hand, is more ‘gung-ho’ in its presentation of aspirational materialism. This distinction is reflected in the strategies deployed by the respective advertising campaigns featured in each title. In Bliss advertising seems to play upon the insecurities of its readers in the representation of idealised and unrealistic depictions of female lifestyles. Advertising in Zoo, by contrast, is more reassuring: male lifestyle is articulated in the vernacular of the ‘everyman’.

These peculiarities aside what unites both titles is that they represent contemporary society and consumer culture as one and the same thing. Lifestyle is presented as a bricolage of goods and services: social order one big cultural jumble sale. And, in part, this is a reflection of postmodern society in which people no longer live so much alongside one another. From education to the health service we have become less the citizens of Britain, and more its loyal and obedient consumers. However, what this neglects is responsibility for what goes on beyond Western trading blocks. While fascination with celebrity and the celebration of materialism may have minimal consequence for those living in the villages, towns and suburbs of Great Britain, for those working in the sweat shops of South East Asia, producing imitation ‘bling’ and counterfeit designer goods for multi-national retail operations, the fickleness of fashion can mean the difference between poverty and subsistence, well-being and ill-health, and ultimately even life and death. While Bliss and Zoo are but fragments of a highly diverse market, what the representations of consumerism in contemporary lifestyle magazines all have in common is a vulgar disregard for anything that exists beyond the immediate wants and false needs of the defined community and the niche market.

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