Sex Sells: The Cosmo-fication Of Women's Health

Men's Health has remained constant, by recycling headlines, but younger sister Women's Health has been charting a whole new path: turning into Cosmo-lite. This happened for many of the same reasons that all women's fitness magazines are so lobotomized.

It's been exactly a year since Michelle Promaulayko became editor-in-chief of the women's spinoff Rodale launched in 2005. I've never met Promaulayko, and a spokeswoman said she wouldn't be available in time to comment on this, and I'm sure she's a very nice person. But the still-successful Cosmo business model is as follows: on the circulation side, huge newsstand sales achieved mostly through sexed-up cover lines, and on the advertising side, a cozy relationship with the beauty industry. Great for profits, bad for anyone looking for an unpatronizing read on health and fitness.

When Women's Health launched, there was reason to believe that the magazine would break the mold. The pages were information-dense, sometimes too much so, and there was a robust, slightly smart-ass energy that belied the faux you-go-girl tone of its competitors. There were fitness models on the cover, so there was no need to pretend that a micro-starlet with a project to plug actually had something to say about a healthy lifestyle. The magazine covered beauty back then too, but it also did reported pieces on hospital safety and travel stories on fly fishing. And it ran things like this:

Sex Sells: The Cosmo-fication Of Women's Health

(The caption reads, "We'll be kick-ass grannies.")

And this:

Sex Sells: The Cosmo-fication Of Women's Health

Even before hiring Promaulayko, editorial director Dave Zinczenko's fondness for all things Cosmo was well-documented. And when it comes to currying favor with the beauty industry, Zinczenko does not discriminate: He used the same strategy to beef up Men's Health's advertising base by creating the Men's Health Grooming Awards in 2007, and was rewarded with beauty advertising growing 45.8 percent for that issue, according to WWD.

Launch editor-in-chief Tina Johnson left Women's Health abruptly in August 2008, after which Zinczenko took over. Like Men's Health before it, Women's Health joined the celebrity cover game, starting with Elizabeth Banks. When Promaulayko was hired away from her longtime gig at Cosmo it was with the specific mission of beefing up fashion and beauty. She brought in top editors from the Cosmo family. Out: the tomboyish verve. In: eating licorice wrapped around your partner's penis (actual June 2009 sex tip), page after page of beauty product placements (including a 25-page beauty package in the April 2009 issue), and Ashlee Simpson on the December 2009 cover, on how she - you guessed it - lost the baby weight.

So far, by conventional standards, her strategy has worked: The magazine was AdAge's Magazine of the Year, Its advertising numbers are less crappy than everyone else's. It has several books planned. The circulation is climbing to 1.5 million, close to beating its more established brother, so apparently there are still plenty of people who want to read it.

Just not the readers who turned to it for a fresh take — some of them complaining about the dumbing down of the content on the magazine's own site. Count me among them.

Women's Health [Official Site]

Related: Rodale Taps Editor For Women's Health [WWD]
Women's Health: Magazine Of The Year [AdAge]