Even if the subject matter doesn’t appear, at first glance, to be of interest, I’ll pick up any magazine or newspaper once just to see what it’s about, especially if it’s free.
I must have picked up The Red Bulletin for the first time a couple years ago. I vaguely remember that I was on my way out the door of a restaurant; I grabbed the magazine and dropped it in my bag. When I took it out on the subway to start reading, I noticed the magazine was a project of/published by Red Bull, the energy drink, and I was suddenly a lot less interested. “Pure product placement,” I thought, flipping through the pages dismissively.
The articles were actually good. They were interesting. They were about subjects I hadn’t seen covered anywhere else. The writing was at least as good as, and in many cases, better than, writing in magazines with “solid reputations.” (Months later, I still remember articles about art in Detroit and skateboarding on the Pine Ridge Reservation.). For the most part, its writers tend to eschew breathless, doe-eyed cliches. The subjects and writers are diverse in terms of cultural, national, and gender identity, which seems all the more admirable given that much of the magazine is devoted to extreme sports. Certainly, other magazines focused on sports and the outdoors have spent more time hand-wringing about the absence of women and people of color on their pages (or what Outside referred to as “the unwaveringly white face of adventure media”) than actually doing much to rectify the situation.
Most important, though, is this: The relationship between editorial and product placement/advertising/money-making is far more transparent than most other magazines I read.
The Red Bulletin is clearly branded as a project of Red Bull, and, as I noted above, many of the articles are about extreme athletes, almost all of them sponsored by Red Bull. Mashable calls the magazine “content marketing taken to the extreme.” But I disagree. Sure, maybe Red Bull wants to sell a few more cans of its energy drink, but I don’t think any brand would be so naive as to think that the resource-intensive production of publishing a great magazine is the best–much less most cost-effective–way to peddle its product. Red Bull hiring pretty girls to drive sporty cars around urban areas distributing its cans? Far more effective than putting together a monthly magazine as mere “storytelling material that attracts readers, viewers and listeners to a brand” (again, Mashable). I wonder how many readers of Red Bulletin have closed the magazine and thought, “Hmm, I feel like I need an energy drink now.” Personally, I’ve never tried Red Bull and don’t intend to. And I’m under no illusion (or delusion) that drinking Red Bull will somehow help me transform from a clumsy 36-year old who was always picked last for the team into a svelte 36-year old who looks half her age and is poised to absolutely rip the next wave/kayaking run/heliski/BASE-jump/etc.
The drink empire funds a multimedia publishing platform and the distractions of other advertisers and far more subtle “interests” are absent. I think this is significant, and increasingly so in a time when conventional magazines that tout taglines like “Truth in travel” aren’t actually being very truthful at all.^ These days, travel magazines aren’t just trying to convince readers that writers who don’t accept comps are somehow less influence-able and less influenced than other writers. They’re trying to obscure their relationships with advertisers through the disguise of advertorials packaged in fancy, editorial-style fonts and layouts. If they call advertising a “content strategy agreement” or a “partnership,” it somehow avoids ethical scrutiny. And what about that editor who posted Instagram photos shot at the US Open from a certain luxury airline’s VIP suite? What’s that relationship and the scope of its influence?
Personally, I’d rather have something like The Red Bulletin— great writing by and about diverse folks that’s packaged in and by a brand that, sure, wants to sell its product but also clearly values journalism and is willing to pay for it–than a magazine in which an editor tries to convince me that the sausage is organic, hormone-free, and packed by clean, ultra-sanitized hands.
^: By which I mean this: A certain publication that embraces the “truth in travel” tagline says, emphatically, that its writers don’t accept comps. But a friend who writes for them (and this is not a singular example) says that writers pay $50 for a $500-a-night hotel room, so isn’t that effectively a comp?
**: And that’s a whole other issue….