The Magazine Reader

The Real Skinny On Men's Health

By Peter Carlson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2007

If truth-in-advertising laws applied to the come-on lines on the covers of magazines, FBI agents would be frog-marching the editors of Men's Health and Women's Health out of their offices and hauling them into court, where they would be convicted as soon as the jury managed to stop laughing.

Consider Prosecution Exhibit No. 1: the cover of the current issue of Women's Health. It looks like every other cover of Women's Health -- a black and white photo of a healthy woman with fabulous abs wearing a skimpy bikini and surrounded by eight screaming cover lines featuring no fewer than six exclamation points. One cover line yells, "Amazing New Plan! LOSE YOUR BELLY See Results in Just 7 Days!" Inside, the article is about how you should eat less sugar and the "amazing new plan" is a list of seven days' worth of low-sugar recipes. Another cover line says, "Feel Healthier Instantly!" Sounds great. Alas, the story inside is about when you should, or should not, go to the emergency room. (Sample advice: "Any time you're having trouble breathing, don't wait until your nails dry.")

Prosecution Exhibit No. 2 is the cover of the current issue of Men's Health, which looks like every other cover of Men's Health -- a black-and-white photo of a healthy guy with fabulous abs surrounded by 10 screaming cover lines and six exclamation points. One cover line yells "Build Wealth Fast!" Great. Everybody wants to get rich quick. Alas, the story inside is about saving for retirement and it advocates that you "take it slow" and invest steadily over decades. Another cover line says, "Dress for More Sex." Perfect! Tell the average guy what clothes will get him more sex and he'll wear them, even if they involve pink polka dots. Alas, this story is just a typical fashion spread and the sexiest revelation is this sentence about a Zegna Sport sweater: "Your personal microclimate has never felt so temperate."

But neither of those covers comes close to the shameless bogosity of this cover line from last November's issue of Men's Health: "2,937 Women Expose Themselves!" Well, hubba hubba! But you turn to page 64 and find . . . four quotes from a poll in which women exposed their ideas about "their partners' communication skills."

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the prosecution rests its case.

How could a defense attorney possibly respond to that scathing indictment? Perhaps by pointing out that millions of people all over the world keep buying these magazines, apparently unconcerned that they're being bamboozled. In fact, the editors of the mags regularly road-test possible cover lines in focus groups, where readers pick the ones they like best.

These magazines, both published by Rodale Inc., are wildly successful. Born in 1987, Men's Health now sells 1.75 million copies a month in America and has fathered 35 sons -- local editions of MH in countries from Australia to Ukraine. In 2005, Men's Health spawned its first daughter, Women's Health, whose circulation is now over 750,000. The folks at Rodale promise that international editions of WH are coming soon.

What these magazines sell so well is the American gospel of self-help, and they've achieved their phenomenal success despite the fact that every issue is pretty much the same. Pick up any copy. You'll learn that you should eat less food and healthier food and exercise more. If you forget that lesson, don't worry, you can learn it again in the next issue, and the one after that. That's why the editors work so hard to come up with clever cover lines. They can't just print "Eat Less Junk!" and "Do More Exercise!" on every cover. Instead, they come up with "1,293 Cool New Health, Fitness, Sex & Nutrition Tips!" on MH's April cover. And "2,793 Cool Health, Fitness, Nutrition & Sex Tips" -- what happened to the exclamation point? -- on WH's March cover.

I haven't tried to fact-check those cover lines by counting the tips in each issue because (1) I would go batty and (2) I have no doubt that every issue has at least that many tips. These mags are stuffed full of enough tips to make your head spin. Here are two of the seven tips on just one page of the April MH: "When you're watching a cop show on television, do 10 situps every time a character says the word 'murder.' " And: "As you gargle for 30 seconds before hitting the sack, fire off 30 pushups against the bathroom sink."

Despite these tips, reading Men's Health will not make you feel healthier. In fact, reading Men's Health is a leading cause of hypochondria among Men's Health readers, who learn that "migraines can signal an impending heart attack" and "having six or more siblings can double a man's risk of stomach cancer" and "eating low fat foods may be making you fat. " If that makes you nervous, consider this: "Nervousness can cause bad breath."

If you're male and prone to hypochondria, avoid the article called "Defend Your Manhood" in the current issue of MH. It's about male gonads and the terrible maladies that can befall them: "itchiness, infection, pain, bumps, sores, growths, rashes, burning, drooping, swelling, clogging, and, hell, cancer." Yikes!

Women's Health seems a bit less scary and a tad more fun-loving than that. The editors at WH like to keep the mood light with goofy graphics. In last November's issue, they illustrated a story on the gastrointestinal tract with photos of a can of baked beans and a toilet plunger. WH also can't resist zippy pop-culture similes: "Brace your abs as if Naomi Campbell might sucker punch you" and "ingest enough fiber to choke Wilford Brimley."

Men's Health and Women's Health have their differences, but they agree on two of the key issues of our time. The first is the crucial importance of rock-hard abs. The second is sex. Both mags are in favor of sex. Lots of sex. Preferably "amazing" sex or "red-hot" sex. Also sex in cars. And sex in clothing-store fitting rooms.

Last month, Women's Health recommended sex as a weight-loss tool. In fact, "Have lots of sex" is No. 1 on the magazine's list of "13 Weight Loss Tricks That Work!" In the January / February issue, WH pointed out that sex saves money by reducing the amount you'd spend on movies, massages and psychotherapy.

Maybe they should combine those two amazing insights into one story. They could hype it with the ultimate health-mag cover line: "Lose Weight, Get Rich Quick And Build Six-Pack Abs With Amazing, Red-Hot Sex!"

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