Slate's Middlebrow: Targeting 'New Yorker' Readers

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Target department stores bought every advertisement in The New Yorker magazine this week. Target did this before, when it bought all the advertising space in an issue of People magazine. Alex Chadwick talks with Slate contributor Bryan Curtis, who examines what the buy-up says about Target's prime audience.


This week's New Yorker magazine features the usual authoritative articles and clever cartoons and something really different: the ads. Gone are all the usual ones for jewelry and cars and upscale clothing, all replaced by pages of a familiar red bull's-eye: the logo of the discount chain Target, which bought The New Yorker's entire issue, at least the ad content. Writer Bryan Curtis of the online magazine Slate has been investigating how Target, or Target (uses a French pronunciation), as some of its customers lovingly call it, got to be so hip. Bryan Curtis joins us now.

Bryan, when and where did Target get started?

BRYAN CURTIS reporting:

It was founded in 1962 by a Minnesota family of department store owners called the Daytons. And because they owned sort of nice, swank department stores, they wanted their discount store to be slightly better than the rest, more like a low-end department store than sort of a high-end dime store like, say, Wal-Mart is. So they created Target specifically to sort of appeal to people who might want to shop at a discount store but not feel like they're shopping at a discount store.

CHADWICK: They want to be hip and fashionable and stylish, and they really picked up on this in the '90s when they started hiring high-end designers for some of their products.

CURTIS: Right. The key moment is 1999, when they reached out to the architect Michael Graves to create this line of kitchenware, including a very famous teapot that sort of wound up as a huge seller. And what they were trying to do is actually create items with real value, as opposed to what Martha Stewart was doing over at Kmart or Kathie Lee Gifford was doing at Wal-Mart, which was basically blessing--adding their blessing to clothes and towels and those sort of things. They wanted to create something that people would really want, a designed item.

CHADWICK: How about the--sort of the political environment for shopping? Some consumers actually pay attention to the political leanings of the store they patronize, or what they imagine are the political leanings. Where does Target fall on that spectrum?

CURTIS: Right. There's this idea out there that Target is sort of the liberal alternative to Wal-Mart, in the sense that Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, has heirs that give lots of money to the Republican Party, where Mark Dayton, who descends from the Target founders, is a Democratic senator from Minnesota. But in fact, that's sort of overstating it a little bit. Both chains have the same sort of problems, you know, in terms of labor practices, in terms of part-time workers. And Wal-Mart, of course, is a much bigger company, so they get criticized a lot more than Target does.

CHADWICK: OK. Well, in the minds of a shopper, what is it when you go to Target, and what is Target saying to the world and to shoppers by buying all of The New Yorker magazine?

CURTIS: Well, they're saying that they sort of want to be taken a little more seriously. They want to sort of bump up the kind of customer that goes in there. They've already gotten all the sort of middle-class shoppers, I think, that they can probably get. Now they're reaching for the sort of high-end shopper: the one that wants to come in and buy a big-screen TV, the one that sort of wants to buy a nice, you know, designed teapot, in addition to all the other great things we get at Target. They want to be known as something more than Wal-Mart with better lights.

CHADWICK: But here's something, Brian. You conclude your piece on Target by going to the magazine rack in the store, and there you find?

CURTIS: Time, People, The Economist--and not a single copy of The New Yorker.

CHADWICK: Opinion and analysis from Bryan Curtis. He writes a weekly column on middlebrow culture appearing in the online magazine Slate.

Thank you, Bryan.

CURTIS: Thank you, Alex.


CHADWICK: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from

I'm Alex Chadwick.

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