AARP’s revamped magazine attempts hip without the replacement
I dunno why you love me baby, I dunno why you care
I’m losin’ my memory, I’m losin’ my hair
I lost my car keys around here somewhere
I’m part of the furniture, I’m stuck to that chair ...
-- “Sox ‘n’ Sandals,” recorded at age 50 by Graham Parker
The editor in chief of AARP’s magazine now bans the use of “senior citizen” because he considers it a “dead” term. One recent issue’s cover proclaimed that “Sixty is the new thirty.” Another trumpeted a survey of middle-aged singles that found a third of the women who dated preferred younger men. The March/April cover teases with a promo crying: “Help! My Husband Loves Porn.”
These are scenes from a high-stakes demographic drama in which the preeminent magazine for seniors puts on a younger face to seduce the aging baby-boom generation -- people ages 40 through 58, some of whom cringe at the thought of ever joining AARP, its wide-ranging discounts be damned.
In this marketing battle, o-l-d has been replaced by s-e-x. Traditional notions of accommodating physical frailty have been replaced by tales of relentless vigor. And three editions -- one for members in their 50s, another for those in their 60s and one for people 70 and older -- are published to navigate generational chasms.
If you’re a 50-ish AARP member, you might find this surprisingly seductive, particularly because the magazine is usually well written and knowingly sprinkled with pop-culture asides. (Like: “Seinfeld is 50. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”) If you’re 60 or older, like 70% of AARP’s 35 million members, you might be feeling a bit left out, shoved aside by the kids.
This is the fifth year of AARP’s trial-and-error campaign to remake its bimonthly membership magazine into a hip lifestyle journal. The organization, which 20 years ago lowered the membership age from 55 to 50, stopped calling itself the American Assn. of Retired Persons in 1999 in favor of initials , because the “R word” scared many boomers.
Time for a change
Last year, borrowing a page from ESPN The Magazine, it changed the magazine’s name from Modern Maturity to AARP The Magazine. It recruited its top two editors from the quirky intellectual journal Utne Reader and the sexed-up physical-culture magazine Men’s Health. It religiously puts a celebrity on every cover. (The current issue features 57-year-old new grandfather Billy Crystal. Coming next: Cybill Shepherd, 54, and Kevin Spacey, 44.) Recently, the magazine hired a veteran L.A. entertainment writer as its “celebrity wrangler,” in part to convince female actresses that posing for AARP is not career suicide. The magazine long known for five hints for a cleaner house now runs a story on the virtues of tardiness. It celebrates curmudgeons. It publishes a guide to “Viagra etiquette” (Guys, tell her you use it but don’t swallow the pill in front of her).
To watch the magazine’s editors at work is to witness the wrestling match that virtually every institution is going through--trying to cater to aging boomers without alienating the rest of its customers.
AARP is huge: So huge that it shrugged off about 60,000 membership cancellations late last year by members angered by AARP’s support of a Medicare bill that added prescription drug benefits but will partly privatize the system. So huge that its magazine’s circulation of 22 million is the biggest in the nation, more than Reader’s Digest and TV Guide combined. So huge that it takes six weeks to mail out an issue of the magazine. So huge that a full-page ad in the magazine costs $385,000.
Yet to stay huge, AARP needs to attract younger members at a rate as fast or faster than the older members are dying off. The first wave of America’s 78 million boomers began joining AARP when they turned 50 in 1996, but they have tended not to renew their $12.50 annual membership as frequently as older members. Some (like the writer of this article) were too vain to join at all , throwing each membership solicitation in the trash.
The point man charged with overcoming this visceral response is Steve Slon, editor of AARP The Magazine for the past year. Slon is a pleasant, 51-year-old, silver-haired man who in college thought he might become a filmmaker but wound up in the world of magazine editing: Success (for entrepreneurs), Men’s Health (for rock-hard abs), and then, three years ago, AARP.
Slon is good-humored enough to announce to a visitor that he’s already had “a boomer moment” today -- a 7 a.m. dental crown replacement followed by an 8 a.m. MRI on a weak knee -- but that self-absorbed sensibility will never appear in the pages of the magazine: In the same manner that his boss, Editor in Chief Hugh Delehanty, dislikes “senior citizen,” Slon has stricken “boomer.” The idea that simply being alive during Woodstock or Vietnam bonds tens of millions is absurd. “The biggest shared experience people in their 50s have is probably evangelical Christianity,” he says. (For the record, Slon bought a ticket to Woodstock when he was 17, but his mother wouldn’t let him go.)
Reporters seek Slon’s take on aging the way they used to seek out Hef’s take on the sexual revolution. Writing about graying rock bands? Here’s Slon in the Albany [N.Y.] Times Union: “This generation believes, fairly or not, that it invented modern rock music. We are not going to get off the stage.” Writing about the mystique of the Harley-Davidson? Here’s Slon in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “You saw ‘Easy Rider.’ As a kid, you had a bit of a wild period in the ‘70s and you associate the motorcycle with that. But you got married. You had kids and a career. Now you can afford this.... It’s safer than running off with a stewardess.” Writing about how people in their 40s and 50s watch the Medicare prescription-drug coverage debate? Here’s Slon in the Dayton [Ohio] Daily News: “Prescription drugs to us are like illegal drugs were to our generation.”
Slon distrusts anyone who claims to be a boomer expert, but he prides himself on having captured what he calls “the boomer gestalt”: a web of contradictory emotions in which you still feel “with it,” yet notice your body responding differently; in which you deny your mortality but can’t help growing introspective about the time left to you. “Part of our mission,” he says, “is to help the reader not give up. To find rebirth, renewal.”
And so, increasingly, AARP members are offered not only articles about “The Secret Life of Grandparents” but elaborate photo layouts of middle-aged celebrities talking about “the passions that drive them”; the saga of a woman in her 50s who decides to scare herself once a year, this time by test-driving at a race track; a “modern love column” edited by a former editor at the website match.com; and Oscar-time awards for “the best movies for grown-ups” (the 2003 winner: “Mystic River”).
The magazine is supposed to show you people ages 50 and up who are “at ease with themselves,” says Delehanty, a short, quick-witted, white-haired man at ease enough to laugh about what a friend told him: “Hugh, you’re the most hated man in America. Every two months you remind people they’re old.”
AARP’s editors are smart enough to have anticipated a backlash against making 50-somethings the stars of the show. So last year they began ripping out perhaps 20% of the racier material and pieces that don’t transcend the younger audience and repackaging two other age-appropriate versions of the magazine.
On the maze-like second floor of AARP’s square-block-marble headquarters a mile west of the White House, Slon recently met with a few of his editors to plot part of the next issue. It’s a quiet, collegial place; the loudest and most unstable influence in publishing -- writers -- are freelancers and thus not an immediate bother. On the table is a story by a grouchy 62-year-old proclaiming how much he hates change -- “I drink the same bourbon, smoke the same cigars and type on the same typewriter I did in 1962....”
“Move it to ‘B,’ ” the edition for those in their 60s, Slon says. “The stuff he’s writing about is something most 50-year-olds aren’t going through.”
Next story: Another first-person piece about a widower finally forced to shop, cook, clip store coupons and take a water aerobics class where he’s the lone male. This will run in two editions, but not the baby-boom edi ... -- oops, the “young edition,” as the editors sometimes call it. “It’s pointless to the 50-year-olds because they’ve already come to grips with this,” Slon says.
Similarly, a piece about the inner lives of grandparents by Willard Scott didn’t run in the young edition. The financial-advice column is massaged for each group, since younger members are more likely to be working.
At another meeting, the staff of the magazine and other AARP publications clustered around a huge conference table are younger than their audience -- the majority look to be in their 40s. The magazine’s editors came here mostly from mainstream places like People and Sports Illustrated. The most colorful counterculture background story belongs to Ed Dwyer, who in 1969 designed the Woodstock festival program in his first job with an ad agency and went on to work at High Times. Editor in Chief Delehanty offers kudos for a headline about a senior computer-learning class: “My Big Fat Geek Workshop.” He introduces the new designer for AARP’s monthly Bulletin newsletter, who jokes, “We’ll have at least one reference to Internet porn in each edition.”
AARP, founded in 1958 by a retired Los Angeles teacher and a New York insurance man and best known for its lobbying and insurance-sales arms, had long been aware of the need to seduce boomers. It redesigned the magazine in 1996, but it wasn’t until 1999 that it began spending tens of millions of dollars to radically “re-brand” the organization. That year, leaders of the organization changed the name to initials and hired Delehanty, then 50.
My Generation fell flat
The first big splash, in 2001, was a new, New York-based magazine called My Generation, which the 3.1 million AARP members ages 50 to 55 received instead of Modern Maturity. Other title candidates were “American Pie” and “Imagine.” If that sounds like generational pandering, it was; AARP killed “My Generation” after two years.
On its heels, the three-version setup and new name -- AARP The Magazine -- were trotted out, with Steven Spielberg gracing the cover. Editors, who employ intense amounts of marketing studies, noticed that the proportion of younger members who picked up and read the magazine had increased. When the magazine published its poll of singles last fall, more than 60 newspapers carried stories on the women-dating-younger-men angle.
Socks ‘n’ sandals
As I hold on to your love handles....
In a restaurant near AARP headquarters, a few senior editors and AARP research experts are briefing a 30-something political reporter on a poll of political attitudes among people 50 and older.
The data is mushy, but there’s little question the lead of the story will focus on boomers, or whatever Slone wants to call them: How will they change the political spectrum as they age? Will it be harder for Republicans to push social issues like a ban on gay marriage? Will healthcare be a higher priority?
Conclusions fly: “They’re for healthcare for everybody but less willing to obligate people to pay for it.” “They want Scandinavia without the taxes.” The writer suggests that as boomers make up a bigger share of voters, there will be less attention paid to political parties and more to causes -- “the personalization of politics; boomers personalize everything.” When the group walks back to headquarters, Slon cautions him against unnecessary glibness: “Boomers are one of our primary audiences. Don’t come down on them.... I don’t want you to say, ‘You lazy, shiftless slobs.’ ”
At their best, the editors find stories that hit a chord with everyone, such as a 20-page section on frontline memories of the Civil Rights Movement, which will appear in the May/June edition. They play with irony by asking Tony Shalhoub, the actor who portrays the neurotically indecisive TV detective “Monk,” to write a piece about how to make decisions.
But just as when a male pal turns 50 and gets an earring or takes up roller-blading, some people will love it, and some will find it ridiculous.
Sandee Lewis, a 53-year-old public relations exec from Venice, couldn’t be happier with the changes. She joined AARP for its discounts, anticipating a magazine that might present Betty White as a role model or offer advice about cruise ships. But in the last year Lewis said she has found stories -- on dating, music, clothing, health -- “that are so relevant to me because I’m this age and they’re not old fogyish.” Her husband, 60, gets the edition for people the editors call “the silent generation” but prefers to read his wife’s younger-themed version, Lewis says.
On the other side of the coin is Jim Doherty, a 66-year-old semiretired magazine editor who lives in Spring Green, Wis. (population 1,500) and has grown peeved at the magazine’s new personality. Late last year, when AARP celebrated actress-model Lauren Hutton’s 60th birthday by putting her on the cover with the headline “Sixty is the new thirty,” Doherty hit the ceiling.
“I thought, ‘Here goes another old standby down the drain,’ ” he says. “I kinda feel like the magazine is going in the direction everybody seems to be going: a rush to get a lot of younger, hipper readers. It’s kinda strange; they don’t have any younger readers. As an old fart, I’m not much interested in this celebrity chic.”
Marketing and publishing consultants are similarly split. There has been a fair amount of acerbic reaction, like the scribe who observed in the Oregonian: “In the halcyon world of AARP The Magazine, people are young, become older and eventually die. But they don’t get old in the process.”
Adam Hanft, president of a New York marketing firm, says AARP, like most institutions, is afraid to sell to boomers and older consumers with the zest employed to reach younger people. Hanft says, “I’d like to see a little more anti-establishment irreverence, a bit more anger directed at institutions of power.”
Slon hopes his magazine will be regarded as one of the publications that “advanced the dialogue” as his generation aged: High Times for drugs, Rolling Stone for music, GQ for fashion, Men’s Health for physical conditioning, AARP for the second half of life. All of this figures to draw a lot of conversation in October when AARP holds its annual membership convention in -- where else? -- Vegas, baby.
Bob Baker can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.