Magazines As Reflectors: The Social Role of the American Consumer Magazines…The Size, Role & Future of Consumer Magazines: A Blast from Mr. Magazine’s™ Past… Dissertation Entries Part 3

March 6, 2015

The social role of magazines: we continue with reflection.

The social role of magazines: we continue with reflection.


2. Magazines as Reflectors

There is no better way to know what the new trends are in American society than to visit the local newsstands and take a look at the newest magazines that have been published. A visitor to the newsstands in early 1983 will see a huge display of magazines dealing with computers and video games. In 1982, the same was true with magazines dealing with health and fitness. Science had its share of the market earlier with six new magazines published, all with the promise to deliver science to the public in a language it can understand.

The magazine, throughout its history, has been a reflector of American life, or, as Ronald Wolseley put it, “what the owners think is American life.” Wolseley noted that “the solid values of the lives of millions of American families are reported by the national magazine, unsensationally but vividly and accurately, in articles and fiction, in pictures and illustrations.”

Drawing on Marshall McLuhan’s hot and cool theory, Wolseley developed a “much less startling theory,” yet one that he thought might be useful. “The magazines of any nation exist in circles corresponding to the circles created by the interests of the population,” Wolseley’s theory stated. That is to say that magazines play the role of a mirror of society reflecting between their covers week after week what is going on in the real life.

John Tebbel seems to support Wolseley’s theory when he says that magazines “have always faithfully reflected the society in which they are produced.” Tebbel believed that magazines have been, are, and will be reflectors of life in America. He considers this one of their most important functions. “Anyone who wants to understand what Americans thought and believed in the twenties, must read the back issues of the Saturday Evening Post of that decade.”

The above information was written in 1983 and is taken from a portion of my dissertation when I was at the University of Missouri-Columbia where I obtained my doctorate in journalism. And while the majority of the material still holds true, things have changed drastically in some areas.


When you look in a mirror; what do you see? Your own reflection, of course, a mirror image of your features, expression and persona staring back at you.

Now, hold the cover of a magazine up in front of that same mirror; what do you see? Society’s reflection, without a doubt, a mirror image of the interests, issues and trends that hold importance for most American lives. And it doesn’t matter the content of that cover; whether it’s Gwyneth Paltrow on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar, or Mark Zuckerberg, Time’s Person of the Year for 2010; the symmetry and rhythm of whatever topics featured with any given issue, resonate with human beings everywhere.

This is what a print magazine does best: it reflects the souls and mindsets of the human consumer and engages their concerns and delights in a way no other medium ever has or ever will. It was true in 1983 and it still rings resoundingly accurate for the 21st century.

Mimicking cultures and menageries of people is a natural action for magazines; after all they are only echoing what’s going on around them; so, it’s not the fact that they’re capable of doing it; it’s the fact that they do it with such gusto and impact that no other medium can compete. That is the doorstopper; the wedge of ink on paper steel that digital, mobile and even television, can’t pry from beneath print’s portal, the place where the audience finds that ultimate connection and jolt.

So, was John Tebbel right? Have magazines “always faithfully reflected the society in which they are produced?”

Jackie K• In January 1961, the cover of Time magazine featured Jacqueline Kennedy, apropos of the time since her husband was being inaugurated as President of the United States that same month.
Partridge 1971• December 18-24, 1971; TV Guide had the Partridge Family on its cover, as the highly popular show was in its second season by then.

kelly lebroeck• Kelly LeBrock on the March 1981 cover of Cosmopolitan, a face of the 80s that at the time was considered one of the sexiest women in Hollywood.

diana 1991• April 1991, Princess Diana graces the cover of Good Housekeeping, vowing to never get a divorce, her response to media when her marriage had begun to fall apart in the early 90s.

Domnoupc-P1.tiff• Newsweek’s September 24, 2001 special report cover after the horrible 9/11 tragedy: “After the Terror – God Bless America.”

oprah-o-magazine-june-2011-2• The June 2011 issue of O – The Oprah Magazine, dedicated to the 25th and last season of The Oprah Winfrey Show.

madonna-rolling-stone-march-2015-cover• March 2015 cover of Rolling Stone, Madonna shows she still has what it takes to grace the cover of one of the most popular music magazines around.

inkonpaper_blog_ad And these are only a few from the gargantuan list of magazine covers that have distinguished the nation’s newsstands over the decades. Looking at just the above list, I would say John Tebbel hit the print nail on the head when he stated: “magazines have always faithfully reflected the society in which they are produced.”

Wouldn’t you agree?

Until next week, when Mr. Magazine™ talks about the entertainment role magazines have played and still do in our world yesterday and today… and remember, if it is not ink on paper, it is not a magazine.™

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: