Ms.ing the Free Press: The Advertising and Editorial Content of Ms. Magazine, 1972-1992
***** MCKINNON ********* EJC/REC Vol. 4, Nos. 2-4, 1994 ****
MS.ING THE FREE PRESS: THE ADVERTISING AND EDITORIAL CONTENT
OF _MS._ MAGAZINE, 1972-1992
Lori Melton McKinnon
University of Oklahoma
Abstract: In 1972, publishers introduced _Ms._
as a forum for feminist debate. However,
conflicts occurred between editors' ideology and
advertisers' wishes. In 1990, it was
reintroduced: ad-free. A content analysis showed
that although _Ms._ sometimes compromised its
promise to be a mass-mediated forum, its current
format has allowed _Ms._ to present a renewed
vision of feminism.
It has been charged that advertisers limit the
diversity of news and entertainment American women receive.
Although advertisers may influence both print and electronic
content, the most obvious relationship between advertisers
and their control of editorial content appears to be found
in women's magazines. Historically, editors have made the
final decisions about what to publish. However, these
decisions may have been influenced more by advertisers'
pressures than by readers' wishes. With few exceptions,
advertising dollars continue to support today's magazines.
Leading one to ask, "Who actually sets the agenda in women's
periodicals? Readers, editors, or advertisers?"
When _Ms._ began publication in July 1972, its editors
hoped that it would serve as a "laboratory," useful to both
advertisers and readers. Editors encouraged readers to
write letters to _Ms._ and to its advertisers if the readers
disapproved of any ads, and they adopted the policy,
"Obviously, _Ms._ won't solicit or accept ads whatever the
product they're presenting, that are down-right insulting to
women...Nor will we accept product categories that might be
_Ms._ vowed to be unlike traditional women's magazines.
When _Ms._ began, it didn't consider not accepting ads.
According to Steinem, _Ms._ established two goals: (a) to
obtain ads for products used by both men and women but
advertised mostly to men; (b) to attract ads for traditional
female products (clothes, cosmetics, etc.) that surveys
showed readers used. In both cases, _Ms._ would ask
advertisers to "come in without the usual quid pro quo of
Unfortunately, the advertisers that _Ms._ managed to
obtain were quick to cancel their ads when something upset
them. For example, after years of trying to avoid harmful
ads, _Ms._ decided to accept ads for Virginia Slims
cigarettes. Editors explained that readers wouldn't
appreciate the "You've come a long way, baby," slogan, but
Phillip Morris was convinced it would work. When a test ad
didn't succeed, Philip Morris took away ads for all their
brands. This cost _Ms._ about $250,000 the first year.
As ad revenue began to decrease, _Ms._ began to ignore
its original policy. Ferguson, Kreshel, and Tinkham showed
that _Ms._'s ads became more sexist and more harmful as the
years progressed. McCracken explained that _Ms._ tried to
be a feminist forum and a business venture. In fact, of
_Ms._'s 1983 revenues totalling $9.3 million, ad revenue
accounted for $5.1 million. Faludi wrote, "The magazine
that had once investigated sexual harassment, domestic
violence, the prescription-drug industry, and the treatment
of women in third world countries now dashed off gushing
tributes to Hollywood stars, launched a fashion column, and
delivered the really big news--pearls are back."
Hovey explained that changes in _Ms._'s content
accompanied changes in its ownership. In 1987, the magazine
changed hands from _Ms._ Foundation for Education and
Communication, a non-profit organization, to Fairfax Ltd.
The new firm installed Anne Summers as editor after Gloria
Steinem moved to a consulting role. After only one year,
Matilda Publications took over as the new owner. Then in
the fall of 1989 Dale Lang signed on as majority owner.
Lang suspended _Ms._ in December 1989. In hopes of saving
_Ms._, he relaunched it as a subscriber-supported bimonthly.
The ad-free _Ms._ debuted in July/August 1990.
The newly launched _Ms._ sold for $4.50 an issue and
$40 for the bimonthly issues. Lang knew that for readers to
pay the high price, he had to give them what they wanted: a
new forum for feminist ideology. Fortunately, the revamped
_Ms._ is succeeding. Denworth said, "The success of _Ms._
defies not only publishing wisdom but also the frequent
pronouncements that the women's movement is over."
From the beginning of the modern feminist movement in
the 1960s, the media have been objects of criticism. The
two most frequently cited founding events of feminism, the
publication of Friedan's _Feminine Mystique_ in 1963 and the
creation of NOW in 1966 contained critiques of the media.
According to Rakow, "In the early 1970s, research on media
portrayals of women and their effects on audiences began to
appear in academic journals, signaling that the topic was
becoming a legitimate one within the existing frameworks of
Analyses of magazine ads have provided insight to media
images of women. Courtney and Lockeretz's study of ads in
eight magazines found that ads showed more men employed than
women and presented men in higher status occupations.
Studies by Wagner and Banos  and by Culley and
Bennett produced similar results. Likewise, Warren
found that ads portrayed women in stereotypical roles.
Rossi and Rossi studied the appeal of magazine
advertising to college students and how these students
perceived sexism in ads. They concluded that both males and
females found the target ads to be much more sexist than
control ads. In addition, Ferguson, Kreshel, and Tinkham
studied the changes in the portrayal of women in ads
appearing in _Ms._ between 1973 and 1987. Based on _Ms._'s
advertising policy, the authors felt that if the ads in
_Ms._ were found to be sexist, then it could be assumed that
ads in other magazines were equally pervasive.
Unfortunately, the researchers found that nearly one-third
of all ads in the sample promoted "harmful" products.
Studies of articles and short stories have examined
themes, images, norms, occupations, and attitudes found in
women's magazines. Early examples appeared in several
sections of the Spring 1974 _Journal of Communication_.
Included was Franzwa's content analysis of heroines
appearing in women's magazine fiction. She found that women
were portrayed in four ways: single, but looking for a man;
housewife/mother; spinster; widowed/divorced. Other
examples are found in _Hearth and Home_, edited by Tuchman,
Daniels, and Benet. Included were three chapters on women's
magazines which conclude that women's magazines project a
similar image: women strive to please.
In addition, the Winter 1978 _Journal of Communication_
featured nine articles on women's issues. Included were
several studies on the ERA. Butler and Paisley analyzed
magazine coverage from 1922 to 1976 and found that more
articles were devoted to women's rights from 1922-1926 than
in any subsequent five-year period until the late 1960s.
Farley analyzed the content of 39 women's magazines that
participated in an effort to increase ERA awareness. She
concluded, "Editorial policy, circulation, and class of
readership was linked to amount of magazine coverage, but
not necessarily advocacy, of ERA." In a later study,
Spieczny examined 13 women's publications to determine how
they covered the ERA between 1970 and 1979. Results showed
that _Ms._ published the most articles on the ERA, 45.
_Ms._ was followed by _Redbook_ with 14 articles.
Farrell explained that when _Ms._ changed from its non-
profit status, editors claimed that only _Ms._'s skin
(cover, size, and format) would change. In an attempt to
determine how readers "construct" meanings from covers,
subjects examined old _Ms._ covers, new _Ms._ covers, and
the November 1987 covers of _Self_, _Mademoiselle_, and _New
Woman_. Respondents felt that _Ms._'s new covers resembled
typical women's magazines. However, when comparing _Ms._'s
covers to the others, readers felt that _Ms._ portrayed
women more positively. Farrell observed, "Both the changes
in `skin' and the changes in `heart' affect the way readers
make meaning from texts." In a subsequent study,
Farrell, drew from a textual analysis of _Ms._, interviews
with its editors and writers, and an analysis of readers'
letters, to show how "_Ms._ worked as a powerful, yet
contradictory, channel for the women's movement, torn
between articulating a bold vision while at the same time
mediating, controlling, and sometimes undermining its
initial promise to be a mass media resource for women around
Some studies indicate that publications feel pressured
to run advertising-related stories. In Hays and Reisner's
survey of 190 farm-journalists, about two-thirds said that
advertisers have threatened their journals on occasion, and
about one-half said that ads have been withdrawn.
Similarly, Hesterman examined the top 100 consumer magazines
from 1972 to 1979 and found that despite the care given by
the journalism industry to maintain the separation of
editorial and ad interests, 49 percent of editors at the
magazines studied felt some pressure from advertisers, and 2
percent said they felt considerable pressure.
Other studies suggest that due to pressures from
advertisers, women's magazines are less likely to cover
controversial topics. Ballenger analyzed the 12 largest
women's magazines' coverage of abortion from 1972 to 1991.
These women's magazines, with combined circulations of 45
million, published only 137 articles on abortion during the
last two decades. Moreover, although more than 40,000
women die of lung cancer each year, many magazines that
accept cigarette ads often fail to cover this issue.
Hesterman found that _Good Housekeeping_, which does not
accept cigarette ads and published an average of 11.2
health-related articles annually, presented the most
coverage with an average of 2.1 articles per year. Although
_Ms._ published an average of 5.7 health articles a year, it
published no features related to smoking. Likewise,
Kessler found that although there were 1,300 articles on the
dangers of smoking published in medical journals between
1983 and 1987, not one of the six magazines studied
published any full-length article on the health hazards of
smoking. Sampling 99 magazines, Warner, Goldenhar, and
McLaughlin analyzed the probability that magazines would
publish articles on the risks of smoking in relation to
whether they carried tobacco ads and to the proportion of
revenues derived. Results indicated that the probability of
a woman's magazine publishing an article for a given year
was 11.7 percent for magazines that did not carry tobacco
ads and 5.0 percent for those that did.
In two studies Norris reported that magazines do not
need advertisers to survive. In his 1982 study, he analyzed
the prices of 45 magazines and the number of ads in each.
He found that price per page is not related to the amount of
advertising. In 1984, Norris conducted an economic
analysis of _Mad_. He found that _Mad_ defied conventional
wisdom that magazines without ads cannot be profitable.
Primary Study. Based on previous research on _Ms._
magazine, the following null hypotheses were formulated:
H1: There were no changes in advertising content over
time for all three magazines considered together.
H2: There were no changes in the advertising content
over time of each magazine considered individually.
H3: There were no changes in editorial content over
time for all three magazines considered together.
H4: There were no changes in the editorial content
over time of each magazine considered individually.
H5: There was no relationship between ad and editorial
content over time for all three magazines considered
H6: There was no relationship between ad and editorial
content over time of each magazine considered individually.
Secondary Study. The following null hypotheses were
H1: There were no changes in the ad content of _Ms._
during times of ownership change (Times 5-7).
H2: There were no changes in the ad content of _Ms._
during all times considered together (Times 1-3 and Times
H3: There were no changes in the editorial content of
_Ms._ during times of ownership change (Times 5-7).
H4: There were no changes in the editorial content of
_Ms._ during all times considered together (Times 1-7).
A content analysis of _Ms._ was performed to determine
if a relationship existed between the ad and editorial
content of the magazine. For comparison, this study
examined selected issues of _Ms._, _Mademoiselle_, and
_Ladies Home Journal_ published between July 1972 and July
1992. By examining these publications, it could be
determined if similar changes had occurred in all three
magazines. By sampling different types of women's
publications, a greater diversity of sampled articles and
ads could be analyzed.
The 20-year span studied was broken down into four
periods to allow for a more equal representation of _Ms._'s
historical changes. To insure that an equal number of
issues was studied in each period, the issues were not
selected randomly. Beginning with July 1972 and selecting
every sixth year, four periods were established: July
1972-May 1973 (Time 1), July 1978-May 1979 (Time 2), July
1984-May 1985 (Time 3), and July 1990-May 1991 (Time 4).
To avoid seasonal variations in ad and editorial
content, every other month was selected. Entire issues of
each magazine were studied. In addition, a secondary study
was conducted to determine if changes in the ownership of
_Ms._ magazine were related to changes in the publication's
ad and editorial content. Therefore, the following three
periods were also analyzed: September 1987-July 1988 (Time
5), September 1988-July 1989 (Time 6), and September 1989-
December 1990 (Time 7).
In the primary study, seventy-two magazines which
appeared between July 1972 and July 1992 were analyzed.
This totaled six issues per year of each magazine for all
four periods. To be selected for analysis, all magazine ads
and articles had to be at least one-half page in length.
Items greater than one full-page were considered only once.
Ads were classified by product type, and articles were
classified by feature type. The total sample yielded 4,601
ads and 1,940 articles. The proportions equaled: _Ms._,
539 ads/554 articles; _Mademoiselle_, 1,939 ads/846
articles; and _Ladies Home Journal_, 2,123 ads/540 articles.
For the secondary study, fourteen issues of _Ms._ which
appeared between September 1987 and December 1989 were
analyzed. Magazine ads and articles were studied based on
the criteria set in the primary study. The total sample
yielded 440 ads and 276 magazine articles.
Three research coders, one male and two female,
analyzed the selected magazine issues. Overall, inter-coder
reliability equaled 94.4 percent. Coding was completed by
following established guidelines. Coders classified both
articles and ads based on category type. Category type was
based on the most dominant theme and on previous research.
Ferguson, Kreshel, and Tinkham found that ads in _Ms._
could be classified as: (1) personal appearance; (2)
business, travel, and transportation; and (3) home
products. For further clarification, the following
categories were added: (4) entertainment (including
cigarettes and alcohol); and (5) other. In addition, Land
explained that most popular magazines offer their readers
articles based on 21 subjects: (1) diets; (2) health; (3)
sports; (4) money; (5) celebrities; (6) how-to; (7) self
help; (8) first-person experiences; (9) human behavior; (10)
marriage; (11) children; (12) travel; (13) fashion; (14)
home furnishing; (15) cooking; (16) trends; (17) sex; (18)
hobbies/art; (19) animals; (20) foreign news; and (21)
national problems/politics. The following were also
added: (22) fiction; (23) history; and (24) beauty.
In the primary study each ad or article was coded
according to the above categories. Next, raw scores for all
of the ad and article subcategories were totalled. The
scores for each subcategory were also combined for each
period and for each of the three magazines. Simple Chi
Square tests were used to see if there were any differences
between the ad and article categories for each of the three
magazines in each period studied. In addition, complex Chi
Square tests were used to examine the relationships between
the ad and the editorial content of the magazines together,
over time, and individually.
As in the primary study, ads and articles in the
secondary study were coded according to type, raw scores for
subcategories were totalled, and scores for each subcategory
were combined for each period of ownership change. Simple
Chi Square tests were also used to see if there were any
differences between the ad and article categories of _Ms._
in each time studied. In addition, a complex Chi Square
test was used to examine the relationships between the ad
and the editorial content of _Ms._ and between all of
_Ms._'s periods of ownership change considered over time.
Summary of Findings
Analyzing the ad and editorial content of _Ms._ from
its beginning as a feminist forum to its current status as
an ad-free medium helped to determine if relationships
existed between topics depicted in advertising content and
the types of articles printed. All of the null hypotheses
were rejected based on Chi Square analyses performed at the
.05 probability level.
Results from the primary study indicated that changes
in the frequency of ads occurred in all magazines considered
together during Times 1-4. For all magazines, the greatest
percent (46.7%) of ads promoted "Personal Appearance." It
also appears that over time changes occurred in the ad
content of each magazine considered individually. During
this time, most ads in _Ms._ promoted "Entertainment"
(41.7%). The largest percent of ads in _Mademoiselle_
(75.5%) and in _Ladies Home Journal_ (51.4%) promoted
"Personal Appearance" and "Home Products" respectively. In
addition, results indicated that changes in article type
occurred in all magazines considered together during Times
1-4. For all magazines, most articles featured "Fashion"
(11.3%). Results also indicated that significant
differences occurred over time in the article content of
each magazine. In _Ms._ the largest percent of articles
focused on "National Problems/Politics" (20.8%). The
majority of articles in _Mademoiselle_ (29.9%) and _Ladies
Home Journal_ (12.6%) focused on "Fashion" and "Cooking"
The secondary study found that during periods of
ownership change (Times 5-7), changes in _Ms._'s ads
occurred. The largest percent of ads promoted "Personal
Appearance" (40.7%). Results also indicated that changes in
_Ms._'s ads occurred during all periods considered together
(Times 1-3 and 5-7). During all periods, the largest
percent of ads promoted "Entertainment" (32.6%). In
addition, the results indicated that changes in article type
occurred in _Ms._ during time periods of ownership change
(Times 5-7). During these times, most articles focused on
"First-person Experiences" (13.6%) and on "Celebrities"
(13.1%). Moreover, results indicated that changes in
article type occurred in _Ms._ during all times considered
together (Times 1-7). During all times, most articles
focused on "National Problems/Politics" (14.9%).
This study also speculated that as _Ms._'s advertising
policies gave way to the demands of advertisers, the ads and
articles appearing in _Ms._ would begin to resemble those
appearing in traditional women's publications. Although
this relationship was not proven statistically, evidence
exists to suggest that the theory may have merit. By
comparing the percentages of _Ms._'s ads in all seven
periods, it seems that ads did become more like those in
traditional women's periodicals. Ads for "Personal
Appearance" increased over time. Moreover, until July of
1990 (Time 4), when _Ms._ contained no ads, articles
increased on "Celebrities," "Fashion," and "Cooking."
The findings of this study indicated that although
_Ms._ sometimes compromised its original promise, its
current ad-free format has once again allowed _Ms._ to
present a renewed vision of feminism. _Ms._'s status as a
popular magazine with a feminist slant gave it the power to
reach a mass audience of women. However, it also created
conflict. Farrell wrote, "Both a `marketing opportunity'
for advertisers and a resource within the women's movement,
_Ms._ magazine was an inherently contradictory text."
Over time, _Ms._'s ad content changed considerably.
Originally, _Ms._ attracted ads for traditional male
products (cars, travel, etc.). However, as _Ms._ strived to
survive and changes in ownership occurred, the editors began
accepting more ads for typical female products (fashion,
cosmetics, etc.). In _Ms._'s early days, editors encouraged
readers to send in distasteful or sexist ads that they found
in periodicals, and included them in their "No Comment"
section. This section reappeared in the first ad-free _Ms._
However, this time the ads were not found in other
publications but were _Ms._'s own.
Likewise, the early _Ms._ published articles which
broke most of the conventions of women's magazines. However
by the 1980s, editors disguised "feminist" articles behind
more traditional topics, providing set-ups for products.
For example, a 1973 article in _Ms._, "Alice in
Cosmeticsland," ridiculed the use of makeup to please a man
and detailed the harms of many cosmetics. On the other
hand, a 1988 article, "Ode to Makeup," focused on the joys
of Maybelline and other cosmetics. In contrast, "Faith
Healers, Holy Oil," appeared in 1991. Through this article,
_Ms._ once again uncovered the myths of the multi-million
dollar beauty industry.
Throughout the years, the editors of _Ms._ found
themselves caught between two worlds: the world of the
women's movement and the world of the magazine industry.
Eventually, _Ms._ became the only representative of feminism
on commercial newsstands. This allowed _Ms._ to reach women
who would not necessarily have read _Ms._ for its political
stance. However, its mass-mediated popularity also forced
the magazine to ignore its original advertising policy.
In July of 1990, _Ms._ re-emerged ad-free and
subscriber-supported. Although _Ms._'s absence from the
commercial arena may prevent it from reaching a mass
audience, it is once again free to communicate feminist
ideology. Ms._'s content can now assume a feminist
perspective, rather than strive to construct one.
 "Personal Report from Ms.," Ms., July 1972, 7.
 G. Steinem, "Sex, Lies, and Advertising," Ms.,
July/Aug 1990, 19.
 Ibid., 20-22.
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Have You," Paper presented at the annual meeting of the
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Related Health Hazards," Journalism Quarterly (Summer 1989):
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McLaughlin, "Cigarette Advertising and Magazine Coverage of
the Hazards of Smoking," The New England Journal of Medicine
(30 January 1992): 305-309.
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Mythical Advertising Subsidy," Journalism Quarterly (Summer
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Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1987).
 Farrell, Feminism in the Mass Media, 15.
 "No Comment," Ms., July/August 1990, 1.
 L. Stewart, "Alice in Cosmeticsland," Ms., January
1973, 68-71, 106-110.
 I. Egan, "Ode to Makeup." Ms., January 1988,
 N. Wolf, "Faith Healers, Holy Oil: Inside the
Cosmetics Industry," Ms., May/June 1991, 64-67.
Acknowledgments: This article was the winner of the 1993
Top Graduate Paper Prize awarded by the
Magazine Division of the Association
for Education in Journalism and Mass
Communication at the annual meeting
held in Kansas City, MO in August 1993.
Author Information: Lori Melton McKinnon
Department of Communication
University of Oklahoma
Norman, OK 73019
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