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June 13, 2007

Those pills

How does the stuff of spam end up in a full-page ad in a respected magazine?

My look at this will be a little rambling, unlike my usual clear and logical prose. But I think I'm going to end up in the place I want to be, so please bear with me. I'm putting this in the extended post, so feel free to scroll down without reading it.

In my family -- in fact, in my extended family -- I'm the tech guy, for better or worse. I was always told that kids know how to deal with technology far better than adults, but while my kids enjoy using technology, they don't really care much about how it works. And to add insult to injury, I do tech support for them.

It's not just computers, mind you. Last week, our freezer's automatic ice maker, which had been turning out only a few anemic "cubes" each day, passed over the line from "not working very well" to "hardly working at all." So my wife persuaded me to take a look at it. Now, when it comes to refrigerators and freezers, my usual practice is, as Dave Barry might say, to look at it and frown in a thoughtful manner, as if I have a clue what I'm looking at. This time, however, I figured maybe I'd tinker with the thing. I went downstairs and shut off the valve to the small copper pipe that brings water up to the freezer. I pulled the refrigerator away from the wall and examined the place where the pipe connects and the place where the plastic tube goes into the freezer. My theory was that there was an ice blockage in the larger plastic tube inside the freezer, but it seemed totally inaccessible to me. After about 15 minutes of frowning, I told my wife we should call the repairman -- an experienced, nice, helpful, and relatively inexpensive fellow I'd recommend to anyone in this area.

After making this sage pronouncement, I pushed the refrigerator back to the wall and went downstairs to turn the valve back on. As I was turning it, I remembered that the last time I opened it, there was a slight leak, so I turned it carefully and got ready to adjust it to stop the leak. For some reason, there was no leak, and I kept turning and turning until it was all the way to the end.

Surprisingly, this story has a happy ending. The next morning, we found a large quantity of full-sized ice in the freezer's ice bucket. I told my wife it looked as if, in a reversal of Pharoah's dream, the seven healthy ice had eaten the seven sickly ice. And amazingly enough, we've had a full bucket of ice ever since. "The accidental repairman," I call myself.

Now, getting back to computers, I've been reading computer magazines for more than a decade, even though a lot of what's in there is way above my head. Right now, I subscribe to three. I don't know what their readership demographics are, but I would describe PC Magazine as a publication catering to earnest and somewhat boring people who treat their computer as an appliance -- the magazine has an emphasis on the practical. The second, CPU (which is short for Computer Power User), is targeted to serious hardware fiends who have a good technical background. This magazine is way above my abilities, but I still find one or two useful tidbits every month. Besides, I started subscribing because I know one of the columnists, who is the brother of someone I went to school with. I mean, I knew him when he was a teenager.

The third magazine, Maximum PC, is probably the most interesting of the three to me. I used to subscribe to the late, unlamented Home PC, which, as I recall, my son sold me when he was a Cub Scout. When Home PC went out of business nearly 10 years ago, its subscription list was purchased by the company that published Maximum PC (which was previously known as boot). Maximum PC seemed like a bad fit for mild-mannered Home PC subscribers, or so it seemed at first. I was a little startled by the magazine's attitude. It boasted, "Maximum PC, Minimum BS," and it offered "Kick Ass" awards to some of the hardware it reviewed. In general, it seemed to appeal to the younger crowd, rather than to the geezer crowd that Home PC was marketed to.

Fortunately, I let it ride for a couple of months, and I actually began to enjoy the magazine. While some of the attitude was juvenile, even by my standards, it was coupled with an irreverent approach to an industry that evoked too much "gee whiz" already. To give you an example from the current issue (July 2007), Maximum PC invited three of its editors to try to hack several different parental control programs, and it reported on their strategies and successes.

Now, I've told you that to tell you this: Maximum PC's July issue also has a remarkable ad near the back. I'm going to give you a content warning about it: Subject matter arguably NSFW, photo borderline NSFW. If you want to read it, click here for a scanned copy.

I fully understand that magazines rely on advertising to bring in revenue; subscription revenue doesn't pay the bills. Still.

This ad says a lot about what the advertiser thinks of the reader demographics -- young, insecure, and gullible. But I wonder whether the magazine's decision to run it might indicate that the magazine has the same view of its demographic. Or else, the lure of the advertising dollar is too great.

For what it's worth, I checked over at the magazine's forums, and there's a thread about this ad, and the editor of the magazine asked that anyone who objected to the ad send him an email. Most of the participants in the thread were joking about the ad, but one participant wondered whether a magazine that has a feature warning readers about web scams should be advertising with people who promote web scams. Another participant pointed out that the editors and the advertising people don't have a direct relationship.

So I'm left to ponder whether magazines should place limits on what they're willing to do to sell their advertising space. Somehow, I think the answer is yes, at least as it applies to "enhancement" ads.